Asbury Park Press

State Ethics Commission Lacks Credibility

Asbury Park Press — Monday, March 10, 2014

Column by

TRENTON — A nonprofit group has filed a state ethics complaint against Gov. Christie's pal, David Samson, whom the governor appointed chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It will go before an ethics commission run by one of Christie's former staffers, which sounds like a conflict in itself. How she got the job in secret is more disturbing.

The New Jersey Working Families Alliance — a coalition of labor unions, mostly public, and New Jersey Citizen Action, a progressive activist organization — calls itself a watchdog group. It alleges Samson voted on contracts worth millions to his law firm's clients.

Samson's activities involving Port Authority business and his law firm, Wolff & Samson, have been widely discussed since last September's closure of some access lanes to the George Washington Bridge at Fort Lee erupted into scandal. In its complaint, the alliance singled out renovation of the Harrison PATH station, a $1 annual lease for a parking lot and the authority's taking over the Atlantic City International Airport, among others.

Several news organizations have looked at how Samson, Christie and the law firm benefited since Christie became governor, including ours today. This is from the Asbury Park Press:

"Samson, a key name in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and the law firm he founded, Wolff & Samson of Roseland along with its lobbying affiliate, Wolff & Samson Public Affairs LLC, have earned millions of dollars from government connections in the Christie era, public records show."

Forty years ago the Legislature created the Executive Commission on Ethical Standards, whose members were from the executive branch of state government. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house. It became a joke. When it met and heard complaints it took a lifetime to act on them and many times that action was a turn-the-other-cheek response or a slap on the wrist. After Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned in disgrace and the world got a good look at how things work here, the current commission was created.

Commission members are appointed by the governor — three government officials and four public citizens, some of whom have been former government officials. Commission members are supposed to interview candidates and choose their own executive director to make the body independent of the governor's office.

In the Christie administration, however, that has changed. The commission didn't interview several applicants last time. It went with the candidate the governor recommended, Susana Espasa Guerrero, who worked as a lawyer in the governor's office — after being vetted by a transition team headed by Samson, who also was the Christie campaign counsel.

Before that, Guerrero worked for eight years at the same law firm where Christie and his longtime friend and political adviser, Bill Palatucci, had worked. In addition, Guerrero worked with people who were subpoenaed by the joint legislative committee investigating the GWB lane closures, who also could be coming before the ethics commission.

The commission voted in secret to name Guerrero to the executive director post, then made no formal announcement other than adding her to its staff list online. Former GOP state Sen. Bill Schluter, a good government and high standard of ethics promoter who once served as vice chairman of the commission, told reporter Mark Magyar of NJ Spotlight that the appointment of Christie's choice as director demonstrates what's wrong with the commission under Christie.

"This is the whole problem. The commission is supposed to choose the executive director, not the governor," said Schluter. "Now, this is the second time that the governor has put in his own choice as executive director. The commission has to have total independence. That was the purpose of the reforms implemented after Gov. McGreevey left office in disgrace."

"She shouldn't have been put in that position," Sen. Richard Codey, who was governor when the ethics commission was created in its current form, told my colleague Michael Symons. "Nothing against her. I don't know her. I have no reason to think she's anything but honest. But the process is now somewhat tainted, clearly."

Under Christie, the State Ethics Commission is losing credibility and becoming a laughingstock like the one it replaced; no one will take it seriously, it's a waste of time and tax money. Christie should stay out of it. In fact, no governor should name its members. Choose members the way they do for grand juries, makes the terms short. None of them should be administration employees or government officials.

No need to have an Ethics Commission if no one trusts it.

Bob Ingle is senior political columnist for New Jersey Press Media.

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