Looking back — fondly: Chris Porrino is back at Lowenstein Sandler, but Gov. Christie’s former AG, chief counsel views his public service with pride

By Tom Bergeron
Roseland | Jul 30, 2018 at 11:00 am
From our print edition

Chris Porrino served as the attorney general for Gov. Chris Christie for the final 18 months of his administration. He returned to Trenton after serving prior stints as both the director of the Division of Law in the Attorney General’s Office and as the governor’s chief counsel.

Now, Porrino is back in private practice, back at Lowenstein Sandler, where he has been a partner since 2004. He said it was an easy decision to return — even though he had options.

“When you’re attorney general, you can come out the back end of that job and pretty much work anywhere,” he said. “Part of the reason I came back here was because I knew that the lawyers here are not only my friends, but are as talented as any, having watched them and practiced with them.

“They are as creative and as client-service driven as anywhere I’ve ever seen. And I was a consumer for five years, with a big litigation budget. That combination is sort of unique. It produced an environment that has allowed me to not have to start over.”

Porrino said he was eager to look back at his time in Trenton. In his first extensive interview since leaving the Attorney General’s Office, Porrino sat with ROI-NJ to talk about his experience — and the role he feels the attorney general plays in New Jersey. 

Here are just some excerpts — edited for clarity and space.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start big-picture. In 44 states, the attorney general is elected. Here, the office is appointed. How does that impact the way you do the job? On the one hand, you have to follow the rule of law. But, you also have to take a lead from the governor, who can dismiss you at any moment.

Chris Porrino: I can speak to how we did it during the period that I had the privilege of doing the job. (Gov. Christie) never said to me, ‘Here’s what I’d like you to do as attorney general.’ Never. And we never had a substantive conversation along the lines of what he wanted the Department of Law and Public Safety to achieve.

He said, ‘I trust you, use your best judgment, and I know you’ll do a great job.’ It really was as open-ended as that.

Of course, in any administration that is structured the way New Jersey is structured, on the civil side, there are opportunities for collaboration, and there should be and will be. But, on the criminal side, there isn’t. If we were prosecuting the mayor of the third-largest city in New Jersey, the Governor’s Office found out about that after the mayor was indicted and before it was public. That’s the way the office was run. On the criminal side, it’s not discretionary. It’s very straightforward. 

ROI: That sounds good, but there’s also this reality: The governor’s stance on issues has to play a role. For instance, Christie’s opinions about cannabis use are far different than Gov. Phil Murphy’s. How does that play out?

CP: There are laws on the books that 120 legislators and the governor get to decide about whether they should remain or be rescinded. My job then as attorney general was to responsibly enforce the law. We’re a state governed by laws, and it’s up to the Legislature to decide whether to change them. That’s the way I operated.

There’s nothing surprising to me about the fact that, on civil litigation, on matters that are not criminal, that the Governor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office would collaborate. I’m not in the least bit troubled by that collaboration. I think (Attorney General Gurbir) Grewal has done a fantastic job. He’s a brilliant lawyer. Someone who’s got really good judgment; someone who I deeply trust. Watching the office from the outside, I think the way they’re doing things is consistent with the way in which I did them.

ROI: Let’s get to some of your moves as AG. Explain how your office took the lead on opioids?

CP: This was the best example where the Governor’s Office and our office were able to really have a synergistic impact on a problem. We decided pretty early that the work of the Attorney General’s Office (on opioids) was a little bit scattered, effective but scattered. The state police were doing their thing in terms of collecting data. You had the civil side of the AG’s office going after licenses of doctors who were sort of indiscriminately prescribing, but not to the level of criminal cases. You had criminal justice folks prosecuting the pill mills. And, on the regulatory side, we oversaw rulemaking within the AG’s office in the Division of Consumer Affairs. We regulate pharmacies and doctors. We have the ability to change how the rules are applying to them. 

We brought together within the first couple of months — privately, without any announcement, without any fanfare — a group of top experts in each one of those silos. And we started meeting on a weekly basis. The first meeting we had was in my basement at my home on a Friday afternoon at 3:00. And it was at that first meeting that individuals in that room were asked, ‘What’s the biggest problem that you see facing us in terms of the opioid crisis that you think you can have a hand in solving?’ And Sharon Joyce, who’s still very active in the current administration’s opioid response, said, ‘The time that the amount of opioids that can be prescribed for a first-time event is too much.’ 

For years, members of the Legislature had tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation to change the statute, which said, effectively, you can prescribe up to whatever it was, 30 or 60 days, down to something less. It was in that conversation in my basement where Sharon Joyce said, ‘I think we might be able to do this by rule change under your authority without having to go to the Legislature.’ And I could feel a sort of tingling down the back of my neck — and I’m feeling it again now.

So, we went through the analysis. It was basically all we talked about for the rest of the afternoon. And we left that meeting saying, ‘This is something we need to do.’ This is a good example where we reach out to the Governor’s Office and say, ‘We think we’ve got an angle here.’ And their response was, ‘That would be amazing if you could do that.’ And we we’re off to the races.

ROI: New Jersey was seen as a leader in the fight, creating examples that other states have followed. That being said, is there more you wish you could have done?

CP: Grewal’s doing it. What I would have done next is something that the AG already was doing on a smaller scale. He, in his own way, is a visionary in this area. In Bergen County (where he was the county prosecutor), he was already engaged in Operation Helping Hand, where he was effectively giving people an opportunity to go to rehab instead of jail. And he has already announced that operation on a broader scale. My vision for that was, and I think it’s his vision, is that there are X number of people who are currently addicted to heroin or opioids in the state. Right now, I think we’re doing a really good job on the prevention side. I think fewer and fewer people will get addicted and I think that we’ll see that start to play out in the numbers eventually. 

But the other side of this problem is the fact there’s a huge number of people who are already addicted — and a huge number of them are going to die unless they get help soon. And, so, the concept of going out into the field and plucking out people who are most desperate, people you wouldn’t otherwise as a law enforcement official be interested in bringing in, pulling those folks out where they’re sort of at rock bottom and giving them a chance, I think is God’s work. And I think that’s exactly what Grewal was doing on a smaller scale and is now taking it on a statewide scale.

ROI: Not all of your moves have been as well-received as your efforts in opioids. For instance, your move against the Mahwah Township Council and the Township of Mahwah, when you alleged they approved two unlawfully discriminatory ordinances in an effort to prevent a feared influx of Orthodox Jewish persons from outside the state. How did that go down?

CP: I’d like to think that someone who was elected to that job would’ve done the same thing we did, but it’s more complicated. I knew the position we were going to take would not be popular in the greater sense, but I remember thinking to myself, ‘How great is this?’ That it doesn’t matter whether it’s popular. I have complete freedom and discretion to do what we collectively in the office thought was the right thing.

At some point, it occurred to me that this isn’t any different than people in the 1950s or ’60s saying, ‘We don’t want African-American people to move in.’ And I understand the complaints that people make about Lakewood. I’ve heard them many, many times over. But the answer to those complaints is not that we’re going to designed to exclude someone based on their culture or religion.

ROI: Let’s keep going with some of the controversial issues. Bridgegate. Recognizing you had to recuse yourself from almost everything about the situation because of your previous role as the governor’s chief counsel, how big an impact did Bridgegate play in your daily work?

CP: Not very much as AG, very much as chief counsel. It was all-consuming when I was in my early days as chief counsel, as you can imagine. As AG, because I represented the governor and the Governor’s Office as chief counsel, you don’t have to be an ethics expert to understand that it would not have been appropriate for me to be in that conversation. It really was not a factor for me.

ROI: Let’s move to the Exxon settlement. Many felt the $225 million deal (the state originally asked for $8.9 billion) was way too small. Or worse, some type of payback deal with Big Business. And a former commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection said you inserted yourself into the case as his chief counsel. How do you respond to all this? 

CP: When that settlement was achieved, we all believed that it was historic outcome for the state. It was the largest settlement ever against a single defendant in the state’s history. I knew at the time, as did John Hoffman, who was the attorney general, and Bob Martin, who was the DEP commissioner, that we had done a pretty good job of creating leverage that was unique. We took the opportunity to utilize that leverage and I think we’re all extraordinarily proud of the outcome. 

Now, despite the fanfare and people running around like their hair was on fire over the settlement, everybody is in the same place and behind the settlement. I knew it was a great outcome. But, sometimes, politics can obscure those realities. And that’s just part of the game. People will ask me, ‘Were you upset by the criticism?’ When you take one of these jobs, you take them with the understanding that there is always the possibility that, even if you’re doing the right thing, that someone may disagree. People disagreed with that outcome, but now, all the courts that have looked at it — including the Supreme Court — and the current administration, agree that it is a deal worth saving.

ROI: Talk about prosecuting Big Business — especially in regard to how it is such a key to the economic health of the state. Is that an issue?

CP: It was pretty linear for us. When we saw a corporate actor that violated the law, we were as aggressive against that corporate actor, maybe even more aggressive to some extent, as we would (be) against an individual.

ROI: All the negative that comes with the job begs a question: Why would you take it?

CP: I think a lot of smart people decide not to enter public service for a number of reasons. With the exception of clerking for a federal judge right after I got out of law school, I had been in private practice my whole career. I had a couple of opportunities along the way to apply and perhaps become a federal prosecutor. And I ultimately made up my own mind up that I should stay where I was, because things were going well, and I was getting a lot of the experience that I think people who go into public service try to get. But I always felt regretful about not having done anything on the public side.

In the fall of 2011, two things happened. One, my mother passed away. Then I got a call from someone who I had done criminal cases with when he was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. That conversation ended up with him asking about whether I would come down to Trenton for 18 months or so. I realized that this was my chance to do what I had felt like I missed. Plus, with my mother, it was recent enough in time that it gave me great perspective, honestly. But for that, I probably wouldn’t have done it.

ROI: How did Lowenstein Sandler handle you leaving? And leaving not once (in 2012 to become the director of Division of Law in the AG’s office and then the governor’s chief counsel), but then a second time to be AG (in 2016)?

CP: They were great. I said, ‘Look, it’s something I really want to do.’ It wasn’t, ‘I’m thinking about doing this.’ I said, ‘I’m doing it and I hope the firm is supportive.’ Alan Lowenstein was really a big proponent of public service, and that culture is still here. It was easy. The firm was extraordinarily supportive of me.

ROI: Any regrets?

CP: I had a great time. I loved it. It’s just tremendous to be able to do (big) things. We made the strategy for how to do coastal protection. That whole project was a figment of someone’s imagination until Sandy hit and until we decided to intervene in the Supreme Court case, which decided how much the easements were going to cost. Under the law that existed prior to that case, the cost would have been completely prohibitive. You couldn’t have built more than a mile’s worth of dunes with the money that would have been available. We got into that case. To have the opportunity to recommend to the governor that we get in, and then to go and argue it, is an extraordinary opportunity and such an incredible privilege.

ROI: So much so, you keep coming back?

CP: No one explained to me the challenge of, ‘It’s not just getting the job, it’s how do you exit.’ You don’t want to exit, because it’s so great. And then, if you’re a loyal person, like I like to think I am, when people you’ve worked closely with say, ‘We really need you to help with this,’ it’s hard to say, ‘No.’

I’m glad I did it. Even if my public service ended after chief counsel, I would say that I was so glad for having done it.

Read more from ROI-NJ: