Federal prosecutors in New Jersey and Manhattan are cooperating on separate George Washington Bridge scandal inquiries, three people familiar with the process said.
The Public Corruption Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York is examining the conduct of former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman David Samson and whether he used his position to help clients of Wolff & Samson PC, the New Jersey law firm he founded, the people said.
The relationship between the two offices in the high-profile investigation has been unclear.
New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s office in early March subpoenaed the Port Authority for records related to Samson’s authorization of two contracts worth $2.8 billion for companies that his West Orange law firm was representing. Michael Chertoff, Samson’s lawyer at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, issued a statement at the time saying, “We are not commenting on the progress of investigations.”
Fishman’s subpoena, first reported by the New York Times, asked for information on whether Samson had a conflict-of-interest when he pushed plans to raise the Bayonne Bridge and rebuild the Goethals Bridge, while representing the companies that got the big contracts. The projects were hugely important to Christie’s reelection bid, enabling him to win a key endorsement from the Laborers’ Union.
Before Fishman’s subpoena became public, it was revealed that SDNY also had subpoenaed the Port Authority for information related to Samson conflicts, sparking speculation of a turf war between Fishman and Bharara’s offices.
But it proved to be a false alarm: SDNY’s Public Corruption Unit had sent out a subpoena without first vetting it with higher-ups, people familiar with the events said.
Columbia Law School Professor Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor in the SDNY who knows both Fishman and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, said he would expect two probes, as well as cooperation between the offices.
“This is a high profile public corruption case in SDNY, too.” Richman said. “The Port [Authority] is sprawling—it takes some line-drawing, which sometimes is done after subpoenas are dropped.”
Dan Stein of Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP, who headed the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Public Corruption Unit from 2009 to 2011, said the office has no formal vetting requirements for subpoenas. “A unit chief opens a probe without checking with higher ups,” Stein said. “The line lawyer assigned to the case can then file a subpoena.”
The exceptions, he said, include high-profile cases. Then, “issuing a subpoena like this would typically be the subject of discussion within the office and between the offices. It’s very surprising this didn’t occur,” he aid.
One possible reason for the mixup, Stein said, is that Fishman’s office “never made it too clear what the scope of its investigation was. The Samson conflicts are a separate investigation from the GWB probe, though there’s an overlap in participants.
“If I were in New Jersey’s office,” Stein continued, “I’d wonder, ‘Is it a turf battle?’ Rule 6E of federal criminal procedure doesn’t prevent SDNY from using material for another grand jury subpoena if NJ passes on charging someone. SDNY’s very independent.”
Once the two offices began communicating about their respective probes, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office deferred to Fishman and withdrew its subpoena, people familiar with the move said. Down the road, if SDNY so chooses, it can refile its subpoena and obtain access to New Jersey’s data. “Sometimes we end up in the same sandbox,” said one of the people in the SDNY subpoena loop. “But there’s no grudge match.”
A longtime former prosecutor in Washington familiar with previous turf wars between high-profile prosecutors said once the two principals communicate with one another, “They’ll allocate resources appropriately. The big plus is that SDNY involvement makes it less likely New Jersey will accede to the political winds.”