Democrats want investigation into Exxon settlement

The state has officially announced a $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil.

The state has officially announced a $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil. (3/5/15)

LINDEN - Democrats are calling for a possible criminal investigation and the resignation of New Jersey's acting attorney general in the wake of the state's environmental settlement with Exxon Mobil, which many have termed a sweetheart deal. Meantime, New Jersey's former environmental commissioner is accusing a top Christie aide of pushing through a deal favorable to the oil giant, while the administration is breaking its silence on the issue and defending the settlement as "historic".

A swatch of 1,500 acres of land around the Bayway Refinery in Linden is contaminated, the result of decades of operations by Exxon Mobil. In 2004, New Jersey filed an $8.9 billion lawsuit against the oil giant, and after a protracted legal battle, a judge ruled Exxon Mobil was responsible for the damage. But before the judge could decide how much to award the state in damages, the Christie administration settled the case for what it officially announced today was $225 million. That's just 2-and-a-half cents of every dollar the state stood to make in court. As Kane In Your Corner reported last week, environmentalists find the timing of the settlement suspicious, since it comes just months after Exxon Mobil had donated more than half a million dollars to the Republican Governors Association. The RGA was chaired by Gov. Christie and has been credited with raising his national profile for a possible run for the White House. 

Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) is one of many Democrats calling for a full investigation into the settlement. "I grew up in the Bayway section of Elizabeth not far from the Bayway refinery," he says. "It stunk, it smelled, but this settlement smells worse."

The criticism has intensified following public comments by one of the people involved in the original lawsuit, Bradley Campbell, the former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. In an op-ed column in the New York Times, Campbell calls the settlement "an embarrassment to law enforcement and good government," and accuses a top Christie aide of jumping into settlement talks at the 11th hour to influence the outcome. "Mr. Christie's chief counsel inserted himself into the case, elbowed aside the attorney general…and cut the deal favorable to Exxon," Campbell writes. 

Sen. Lesniak says if that's true, Acting Attorney General John Hoffman should resign "because being acting attorney general requires that you act like the attorney general."  

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) goes even further, raising the prospect of a criminal investigation. "If what we read is true…I think we have to talk to the U.S. attorney," Sweeney says.

Gov. Christie's office broke its silence on the settlement today, officially releasing the settlement figures, which were $25 million less than originally reported. Nonetheless, in a written statement, Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts called the deal "historic," adding that "the notion that this settlement represents something less than what is fair for New Jerseyans is absurd and baseless."

In a carefully worded statement, the Christie administration described the settlement as "the largest single environmental settlement against a corporate defendant in New Jersey history."  Taken literally, the statement is true. However, without that very specific combination of words, the Exxon Mobil deal would not even qualify as the largest environmental settlement in New Jersey in the past 90 days. The Passaic River cleanup settlement, reached Dec. 14, would dwarf it at $355.4 million, but that deal is technically a combination of three settlements, rather than one single settlement.

Roberts also accuses Campbell of playing politics in criticizing the deal, pointing out that in 2006, the former DEP commissioner estimated that damages in the case could "run into the hundreds of millions" of dollars. Since that is what the case settled for, Roberts argues that Campbell's comments are "disingenuous" and "baldly political". But government records reviewed by Kane In Your Corner raise questions about Roberts's claim. They show that Campbell made his remarks before damage estimates were in. The reports the state used to set damage figures - not in the millions but at $8.9 billion - were not finished until six months later.

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