Stop me when this sounds familiar, but there’s a new story brewing in Trenton involving the governor’s office and allegations of improper influence.
This time, it involves an eleven-year-long case against ExxonMobil that Chris Christie’s administration is trying to settle for $255 million. That sum, announced today by acting attorney general John Hoffman, is less than 3% of the $8.9 billion New Jersey officials had long sought from the petroleum giant after the company was accused and found guilty of polluting two wetlands sites in Bayonne and Linden, New Jersey. News of a much-reduced negotiated settlement figure of $250 million, brokered between state lawyers and attorneys representing Exxon, broke on Friday. Today, the number was adjusted to $255 million and lauded by Hoffman as evidence that the Christie administration had “aggressively pushed the case to trial.” It was, he said, “the result of long fought settlement negotiations that pre-dated and post-dated the trial.”
Hoffman’s narrative is being challenged, however, by one of the people who decided to seek those funds from ExxonMobil in the first place: Bradley Campbell, who served from 2002 until 2006 in then-Gov. James McGreevey’s cabinet as commissioner of the New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.
In an op-ed published in today’s New York Times, Campbell accused Gov. Chris Christie’s office of muscling into the case to reach a settlement more favorable to Exxon at the expense of the state’s taxpayers. “Former colleagues of mine in state government, where I served as commissioner of environmental protection from 2002 to 2006, have told me that Mr. Christie’s chief counsel inserted himself into the case, elbowed aside the attorney general and career employees who had developed and prosecuted the litigation, and cut the deal favorable to Exxon.” Since early 2014, Christopher Porrino has served as Gov. Christie’s counsel – his top lawyer, whose office is directly across the hallway from the suite of offices used by the governor in the state’s capitol building.
At this time, neither Christie nor Porrino have responded to Campbell’s allegations. Campbell has not yet returned a message left with his office earlier today.
It’s not hard to see why career professionals working on this case would find a way to make their displeasure over the $255 million settlement known, and why they might choose Campbell as the person to tell that story.
Yesterday, Democratic leaders of the state legislature, who stood behind Christie little more than a week ago when the governor delivered an annual budget address, called for legislative hearings to look into the proposed Exxon settlement, which has yet to be approved by a state superior court. “The reported settlement is appalling and disturbing,” said Assemblyman John McKeon in a statement. “The Christie administration appears more interested in rewarding ExxonMobil — for whatever reason — than protecting taxpayers and our environment.” As of now, a hearing has been set for Thursday March 19.
Fast forward twenty-four hours and legislators seem even more ready for a fight after reading Campbell’s Times op-ed. State senate president Steve Sweeney today called for U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman – whose office has been investigating Bridgegate and related Christie and Port Authority matters since last January – to take a look at the Exxon settlement. “If what we read is true,” Sweeney said, “then we have a major problem and I think we have to talk to the U.S. Attorney and we’ll go from there.”
Just remember — this all happened in the last six days.
Located along an industrial corridor of the New Jersey Turnpike near Newark Liberty International Airport, the polluted sites at the heart of this case are somewhat notorious locations in New Jersey – the kinds of places you mention to people from the ‘Garden State’ if you want to get under their skin. Residents already know these places: factories, some abandoned, some still in operation, line I-95 near Newark Airport. You’ve seen this landscape in the opening credits of “The Sopranos”: forests of steel towers carrying high-tension power lines, squat round tanks labeled “Drive Safely” and four separate arteries of highway with jets just overhead taking off and on final approach. It’s a part of the Garden State that feels like it might as well have been assimilated by the Borg.
Just to the south of the airport is the Bayway Refinery, identifiable because of the white orb-like tanks that salute the highway, flanked by a sprawling tangles of pipes, elbows, and junctions that occasionally feed into a dozen or so stacks that huff ignited gas into the air, creating bursts of flames fifteen feet high. The refinery is today owned by Phillips 66, a spin-off of petroleum giant ConocoPhillips. But the site’s true corporate parent is Exxon, the modern day iteration of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company that bought and cleared the property in 1907. To this day, ExxonMobil owns a piece of the refining operation in the form of chemical and automotive additive companies that operate on-site.
During its first century, Exxon and its corporate parents dumped pollutants into the Morses Creek that flows through the site and into the Newark Bay and Arthur Kill waterways. Not far away, at another ExxonMobil-owned refinery in Bayonne that had been operated from 1879 until 1972, seven million gallons of oil seeped into the area’s soil and groundwater. In some spots, that contamination runs seventeen feet deep below the surface.
Under New Jersey’s 1976 Spill Compensation and Control Act, the state had the power to go after the company to compel them to pay for environmental remediation and loss-of-use costs. In 2004, then-Gov. James McGreevey’s administration filed suit against Exxon, with Bradley Campbell leading the charge for $8.9 billion in damages. McGreevey’s successors – Acting Gov. Richard Codey, Jon Corzine, and Chris Christie all continued that fight. In 2008 Exxon was found legally responsible for these messes, leaving the only remaining question how much of the $8.9 billion the company will pay.
After these eleven years of litigation, a Burlington County superior court judge was finally preparing to make a ruling on that question last month when he was urged by officials in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to hold off. The company and the state were nearing a settlement, lawyers for the state told the judge.
When details surrounding that settlement broke in the New York Times last Friday, longtime watchers of the case were aghast. $250 was less than 3% of what the state had initially sought from Exxon. As I would tell my students, $250 million is closer to zero than it is to $8.9 billion. ExxonMobil saw revenues of $407 billion in 2014; that breaks down to $1.1 billion per day, or $46.5 million per hour. ExxonMobil therefore sees $250 million come through its door every five hours.
Why would Chris Christie suddenly do an about face to offer such an easy deal to ExxonMobil?
At this point, the governor’s motives are opaque. Yes, Exxon donated $1.9 million to the Republican Governor’s Association while Christie was at its head. Presidential campaign watchers wondered if Christie was signaling an openness to big oil to coincide with a visit to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
But longtime legislative aides saw another dynamic at work: Christie’s budget address contained little good news. The governor spoke of a ‘roadmap’ to public pension reforms, but his office would not release details and the state’s teachers union insisted no agreement was in place.
The governor, multiple sources suggested, might simply be seeking a quick $200 million to plug a hole created by a recent court ruling that his administration must pay $1.6 billion into the state’s pension funds – a payment Christie hoped to skip even though doing so would violate a 2011 pension reform law he championed and signed as governor.
Under the terms of Christie’s proposed budget, most of the funds arising from an environmental settlement with ExxonMobil will go into the state’s general funds – the pool of money the state government uses to fund everything it does. Only the first $50 million would go toward environmental remediation costs projected to cost several billion dollars.
More than RGA donations or CPAC showboating, allegations of interoffice meddling and strong-arming will continue to spark new public fights over access to records from the governor’s office and internal budget documents in Trenton. One state senator is already calling for Acting Attorney General Hoffman to resign.
Fishman’s office has not commented on the calls for a federal investigation of the Exxon deal, but everyone following Christie knows that it’s not because Fishman isn’t interested in the governor. His office has been particularly busy lately investigating former Port Authority chairman David Samson over an apparent flight route that United Airlines – Newark Airport’s largest carrier – arranged from Newark to an airport near Samson’s vacation home in South Carolina. The flight route was cancelled three days after Samson resigned from the agency last year. Sources say that Samson, 75, has thus far been uncooperative. It is hard to overstate the degree of danger an indictment of Samson could pose to Gov. Christie if Samson were in a position to deliver evidence of official misconduct to federal prosecutors.