Chris Christie can’t catch a break. The New Jersey governor and former front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 (admittedly, more than two years before the election) has been buffeted by scandal and by his state’s poor economic performance. Now a new issue is raising questions about how his administration settled a massive lawsuit against oil giant Exxon for about 3 percent of what prosecutors originally demanded.
The lawsuit in question has been working its way through the courts since 2004, when Bradley M. Campbell, then the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, authorized taking action against Exxon for contaminating 1,500 acres of northern New Jersey wetlands with waste from two of its refineries.
A court found the company liable for the destruction of the wetlands and was expected to issue a ruling soon on the damages Exxon would pay. The state had requested $8.9 billion in payments from Exxon, a large portion of which was intended to go to restoration of the damaged land.
Despite the court's determination that the company was liable, the state unexpectedly entered settlement talks with the company, asking the judge to withhold his ruling on the damages while the talks took place. Last week it was announced that the state would accept a settlement payment of $250 million from Exxon, about 3 percent of what it had originally sought.
Writing in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday, Campbell, now an attorney in private practice, called the deal “an embarrassment to law enforcement and good government.”
Campbell claims that former colleagues in the government have contacted him, claiming that 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.”
Campbell’s claim came on the same day that a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that Christie’s approval number in New Jersey had sunk to an all time low of 35 percent among registered voters.
The impetus behind the decision to settle for a sum so much smaller than what the government had originally sought remains unclear. However, it appears that a relatively small portion of the payment will be dedicated to remediating the damaged wetlands, with the bulk going to fill a hole in the state’s annual budget.
State lawmakers on Wednesday announced that they would hold hearings on the settlement later this month.
Christie’s office and the rest of the New Jersey Statehouse were closed on Thursday due to a winter storm. A message seeking comment was left for the governor’s press team, but had not been returned by the time this story was published.
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