Friday, March 06, 2015

Oil-Rigging A Settlement

New Jersey's singularly egocentric governor is at it again. Andrew Seidman of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports

New Jersey's acting attorney general confirmed Thursday that the state had reached a settlement agreement with ExxonMobil Corp. over decades of contamination in North Jersey, but the announcement was overshadowed by allegations that a top aide to Gov. Christie meddled in the litigation and criticism that the deal shortchanged taxpayers and the environment.

The proposed $225 million settlement, reached after state prosecutors sought $8.9 billion in damages at trial last year, is expected to be published in the New Jersey Register on April 6.

Fortunately, the opera ain't over till the fat lady sings- and we're not talking about Chris Christie covering "Born in the USA." Instead, according to Seidman, the settlement "would then be subject to a 30-day comment period and must be approved by a state judge."

The history of the settlement is more than a little curious.  Seidman explains

The 2004 environmental lawsuit alleged that for decades, ExxonMobil's plants and refineries in Linden and Bayonne contaminated the state's wetlands, marshes, and creeks.

The case finally moved to trial last year, and all that was left to determine was what ExxonMobil owed in damages.

The judge was apparently close to issuing a ruling. But in January, the state asked the judge to delay a decision so that settlement talks could proceed, the New York Times reported last week.

Environmental law professor Edward Lloyd of Columbia University Law School noted the timing of the settlement was odd and maintained, wrote Seidman,

There are times in the life of a case when a settlement is really opportune but that doesn't seem to be the case here. You've done all the work. The case is in; it's in front of the judge. Why all of a sudden do you think the judge is going to discounty your claim by 95 percent? If you thought that, why wasn't the case settled five years ago, for instance?

Why, indeed? I think we know the answer to that, given

Under the appropriations bill Christie signed in June, the first $50 million the state obtains "in natural resource, cost recoveries and other associated damages" must be deposited into a fund for hazardous discharge cleanup.

But the law says all money obtained beyond that "shall" be diverted to the general fund. Democrats had sought to allocate half of such money - beyond the initial $50 million - to environmental programs, but Christie vetoed that language.

New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel contends

This is a bigger scandal than Bridgegate. Bridgegate was about retribution. This settlement is costing the taxpayers billions of dollars.Wen you sell out the public and let the poluters off the hook, it sends a message that you can get away with anything in the Christie administration.

Not if you're a teacher or a Navy SEAL. Or a reporter (video below).  Or just about any citizen.  If you're a corporation (corporations are people, my friend!), you've bought your ticket to scavenge Chris Christie's constituents..

"The administration had no reason to settle," Tittel recognizes, "other than balancing the budget and giving away the store to Exxon-Mobil at the expense of New Jersey's environment."

But Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman, appointed by the governor, begs to differ and, Seidman notes, "said Thursday that the state wouldn't  receive settlemnt money until fiscal 2016 at the earliest. The funds would be allocated in accordance with the appropriations act for that fiscal year, which begins July 1."

The fiscal year runs July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016. And what would it be which would take place within that time frame?  It couldn't be a Repub presidential race,could it?  It would not be wise for Chris Christie to face GOP primary voters- and, especially, wealthy potential donors- having to defend reinstating a millionaires' tax to balance the budget.  Or to do  anything, even if it were helping to facilitate the Second Coming.

No one can accuse ExxonMobil of stupidity or an excess of altruism. Seidman found

Records filed with the IRS show ExxonMobil donated $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2014, when Christie chaired the group and raised record sums to help elect GOP governors across the country. The company had made contributions to the RGA in previous years, including more than $600,000 in 2010, records show.

ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers said the company also donated to the Democratic Governors Association. Christie's position as RGA chairman last year "had no bearing on our decision to donate or the amount donated," he said.

No, of course it didn't. Jeffers didn't say how much (or when, as far as the reader can tell) his company had donated to the Democratic Governors Association. He also neglected to mention that likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton never had been chairperson of the Democratic Governors Association

The authentic and non-apologetic "what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of politician" may have been tangentially involved:

In a commentary published Thursday in the New York Times, Bradley M. Campbell, a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection who authorized the lawsuit against ExxonMobil in 2004, called the settlement a "disgrace" and an "embarrassment to law enforcement and good government."

He said former colleagues in state government had told him that Christopher Porrino, the governor's chief counsel, "elbowed aside the attorney general and career employees who had developed and prosecuted the litigation, and cut the deal favorable to Exxon."

Counter-attacking, Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts termed Bradley's claims "baseless allegations" and "irresponsible (and) disingenuous" coming from a "many-time Democratic appointee."  Blaming the messenger rather than refuting the message is a classic tactic, one nearly perfected in recent years by Repub operatives.  Roberts' attack, though, is best understood  by a story told by an attorney and literary agent, who in 1985 wrote

I call it “The Last Resort Rule.” It was taught to me by a great teacher at Columbia Law School named Jerome Michael, who taught a course in appellate advocacy. At the last moment in the last class of the course, when he had taught us everything he knew, he said: “These are my final words on advocacy. If you have the facts on your side, hammer the facts. If you have the law on your side, hammer the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, hammer the table.”

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