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Another key Christie ally leaves his job amid scandal

Posted at 6:46 PM, Mar 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-28 18:46:57-04

TRENTON, New Jersey (CNN) — Another top ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has resigned amid a political scandal that has roiled the Republican’s administration and clouded his potential presidential prospects.

Christie announced at a news conference on Friday that David Samson, who chairs the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had stepped down, effective immediately.

“He’s 74 years old. He’s tired. He’s served a long time,” Christie said, of Samson, a powerful lawyer in the state who once served as New Jersey’s attorney general.

Samson is under fire on two fronts: Questions have been raised about his law firm’s business ties to the agency he leads. His name has also surfaced in the scandal involving suggestions top Christie allies abused their authority by orchestrating traffic jams around the George Washington Bridge last year in Fort Lee to punish the mayor of that town for not endorsing the governor for reelection.

The scandal so far has centered around two former Christie appointees, one of whom worked under Samson at the Port Authority, a bi-state transportation agency that runs the nation’s biggest bridge.

Samson has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but he’s been subpoenaed by the legislative panel to turn over documents as part of that investigation.

Last month, he issued an apology as chairman of the Port Authority board for the inconvenience caused by the traffic gridlock over five days in September.

More prominently, questions have surfaced about clients of his law firm, Wolff & Samson, benefiting from business with the Port Authority.

Samson, a Christie appointee, previously said he recused himself from board votes when they involved business with clients of that firm. The New York Times and other newspapers had called for Samson to resign over that issue.

“He called me this afternoon,” Christie said in Trenton about Samson’s resignation. “It’s effective immediately.”

On the bridge scandal and Samson, Christie said during his hour-long news conference that he asked him in January whether he knew anything about it, and “he said he did not.”

Christie said he had been having discussions with Samson about leaving the Port Authority for a year.

Christie said that he asked Samson to stay, believing he would be reelected to a second term, which he was in November.

The governor said he did not believe Samson’s resignation “was essential,” but he accepted it.

Christie’s appearance is his first news conference since January 9, when he answered questions for nearly two hours about the bridge controversy, which was starting to make national headlines.

Friday’s question-and-answer session comes one day after the release of an internal review by a team of lawyers hired by Christie’s office into the lane closures.

Christie’s administration is facing both federal and state investigations over suggestions top associates deliberately closed the lanes to punish the Democratic mayor of that town for not endorsing the governor’s 2013 reelection.

The review blamed two top aides and backed up the governor’s denials that he knew anything about the gridlock until after it occurred. Christie has said he knew nothing about any political mischief by members of his administration.

But the controversy has clouded Christie’s political future as he seriously considers a bid for the White House in 2016.

Other key points raised by Christie at the news conference:

* He said the internal investigation his office commissioned indicated there was indeed a traffic study involved. But the review of the matter indicated a “nefarious or inappropriate” motive for the study by former Port Authority executive David Wildstein and Bridget Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to the governor.

* He said the internal probe was “limited in small part by some of the access that they had and didn’t have to certain people.” But he added the document exonerating him of any wrongdoing was exhaustive and thorough and he knew it was going to be criticized “no matter what.”

* Christie acknowledged the controversy had shaken his confidence, adding that “if it doesn’t shake your (confidence), you’re arrogant.” People he “trusted and relied on” let him down and therefore, his administration let down the state, Christie said, adding: “Of course that shakes your confidence.” He also said that he did not know when he would be able to put the matter behind him.

* Christie said he doesn’t care about lower poll ratings now in the aftermath of the controversy, saying that if he were to run for office in the future, “the poll I’ll care about” would be the one two days before the election.

Christie and his lawyers stood by their review as an independent investigation, even though critics had their doubts.

A key entry in the report released Randy Mastro, who led the internal investigation, found that Wildstein apparently told a top official with the governor’s office in Trenton that he informed Christie at a public event about the lane closures as they were occurring.

But the report said Christie “does not recall” any conversation with Wildstein and it all wouldn’t have “registered” anyway because the governor “knew nothing about this decision in advance” to close traffic lanes.

Although the review introduced new details and magnified allegations against key players — like Wildstein and Kelly — it did not offer any clarity on why the lanes were closed beyond “some ulterior motive to target (Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich).”

Still, Christie’s team said some things are now better understood.

“We are confident that, based on our thorough review, we have a clear understanding of what happened here, even if the participants’ precise motives remain to be determined,” the review said.

The scandal, under investigation by a state legislative committee and the U.S. Attorney’s office over concern Christie appointees abused their authority, has called into question the governor’s forceful governing style.

The report examined the claim that Christie had created a “culture” of bullying adversaries and found it “unsubstantiated.”

Christie said on Wednesday night that the saga, which has engulfed a number of key officials he appointed since taking office in 2009, has not altered his thinking about a possible White House run.

While this was the first news conference Christie’s held since early January, he has answered questions from listeners to his “Ask the Governor” radio appearances, and he’s held a bunch of town halls over the past two months as well.

In addition to Samson, Wildstein, Kelly, and a number of others have been subpoenaed as part of the state legislative investigation.

Wildstein has refused to testify before legislative investigators. Kelly is fighting her subpoena in court.

Investigators conducting the internal review were not able to speak with Wildstein, Kelly or other prominent figures in the scandal.

The review also found that Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and Port Authority Executive Director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee, knew of the plan to close the lanes in advance, but there was no evidence uncovered that the two men knew why.

The review alleged Kelly and Wildstein covered up the motive by telling members of the Christie administration that the gridlock was part of a traffic study, a claim that Democrats have questioned.

Lawyers for Wildstein and Kelly could not immediately be reached for comment.

Kevin Marino, the attorney for Stepien, said the internal review “only confirms” that Stepien, who managed Christie’s two successful gubernatorial campaigns, “had no involvement whatsoever in the planning, execution or concealment of the lane closures.”