Six Ways the Christie Administration Blocked Reform at the Port Authority

Monday, March 10, 2014

Gov. Christie denies having any knowledge of the lane closures at a January press conference. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Early in his governorship, Chris Christie promised to shine a light on what he called  New Jersey’s “shadow government” —  the hundreds of authorities, commissions and boards that populate New Jersey government.

But WNYC has identified at least six ways his administration did precisely the opposite at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — at the same time the bi-state agency was working behind the scenes to advance Christie’s political fortunes and the private business interests of its chair, David Samson.

1. Resisting a AAA lawsuit over toll hikes with a blizzard of legal paperwork and motions. Over nearly 3 years, a crack legal team led by Randy Mastro has prevented the motorists group from seeing 339 documents, including those showing communications between the Port Authority and the governors of New York and New Jersey “in order to safeguard the quality and integrity of governmental decisions.”  

2. Not answering congressional inquiries. In the spring of 2012, the late U.S.Senator Frank Lautenberg held a hearing in which Port Authority Deputy Director Bill Baroni was questioned about toll hikes, the cancellation of a train tunnel under the Hudson river, and patronage hires. Beside him, Baroni had a large black binder containing embarrassing information about Lautenberg, which he would refer to from time to time. When Lautenberg tried to get information about when Governor Christie learned of the toll hikes, Baroni simply refused to answer. Baroni was later cited by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller for “failing to meet the standards of civility and decorum that the Committee expects from its witnesses."

3. Blocking NJ Assembly subpoenas. Frustrated with his inability to get information, New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) got subpoena power to investigate the toll hikes and cancellation of the Hudson tunnel. Subpoenas were issued in early 2012. But the Port Authority legal team would not fully release the documents, including minutes of meetings of closed executive sessions of the Port Authority board, where most of the business gets done. By November of 2013, Wisniewski was still grumbling about “the poor handling and lack of transparency at the Port Authority which seems to be an ongoing issue because we’re still waiting for complete answers to our subpoenas.” The subpoenas expired before they were ever answered.

4. Vetoing a bill that would have allowed legislative oversight of the Port Authority. Authorities reform bills are hard to pass. Their constituency is tiny, their costs potentially huge to lawmakers who also like to get pork from government. In New York, a reform bill took 9 years and 3 governors to get passed. But with the Port Authority, it's even tougher. By charter, no law can apply to the bi-state agency that isn’t identical in both states, which means four legislative bodies and two governors need to sign off on it. In New Jersey, legislators did pass an oversight bill in 2012 in both the Assembly and the Senate. But Christie vetoed it. “The Port Authority accountability bill was nothing more than a press release from John Wisniewski and the Democratic state party,” Christie explained, adding that it should reform all New Jersey Authorities. “If they’re serious about it and that’s why I put that bill back at them. Then let’s come with a bill that covers everything.” This prompted New Jersey State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) to say the Governor was blocking reform in the name of furthering it.

5. Ordering up his own audit to influence the outcome. As a condition of passing a toll hike, Governors Christie and Cuomo promised an audit of the Port Authority. On the surface, it seemed tough. It called the agency “dysfunctional.” It criticized inflated spending and careless budgeting. But Jameson Doig, a Dartmouth and Princeton professor who is author of “Empire on the Hudson,” the definitive book about the Port Authority, criticized the audit for failing to address the politicization of the agency. It didn't examine patronage hires nor corrupt contracting. “My impression was this wasn’t an independent and objective audit," Doig told WNYC. “That it was written based on what the Governors’ offices would like to have it say — this isn’t unusual.” Port Authority Chairman David Samson had a different takeaway from the audit: "It concluded the agency’s new leadership is fundamentally reforming the agency.”

6. Misleading the legislature (This one didn't actually work.) Armed with red sharpies and a giant blown-up photo of the George Washington Bridge, deputy director Bill Baroni suggested to legislators in November 2013 that the September lane closures had been the result a traffic study, something we now know wasn’t true. Even then, Assemblywoman Linda Stender wasn’t buying it. “This hearing is about the lack of communication and the poor conduct of the Port Authority," Stender said. “And you are here trying to cover that up. What I would like is to know whether there’s an email trail. You’re trying to tell us that there’s a study that had a major disruption on a major bridge has no paper trail, that there is not a single email. That defies all logic and no one in this room believes that!”

Six weeks later, the Bridgegate emails were released, and as we now know, the trail led all the way to Christie's doorstep. There are multiple investigations, including one ordered by Governor Christie. The lead attorney on that is the same one who so aggressively blocked oversight at the Port Authority — Randy Mastro.


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Comments [16]

Colleen from Texas

To add/clarify "Uptown's" comment:

The 4.5% figure used by Mr Baroni represents the number of EZ Passes that are registered with a Ft. Lee address. Note that this is a very different figure than the actual number of vehicles that access the GWB from the "Ft. Lee lanes". In the documents released by Mr. Foye to the NJ Legislative committee, there was a series of emails between Foye and Allison deCerreno, who is the Program Director, Toll Systems & Revenue Operations PANYNJ Tunnels, Bridges and Terminals. She stated that during morning rush (6 am to 9 am when the lanes are coned off), those lanes generated 26.8% of all the GWB traffic. The evening rush between 4pm to 7 pm, the proportion was 26.9%. So, it's conclusive that many folks who are not residents of Ft. Lee use those lanes to access the GWB.

In his December 3rd presser, Chris Christie spoke about the "unfairness" of the "Ft. Lee Lanes" and said that he, "told Chairman Samson this, that we should look at this policy, because I don't know why one town gets three lanes. One lane, maybe. Three lanes for one town? I don't quite get it."

Mr. Christie, I don't quite get it! You don't think anyone from any other town outside of Ft. Lee would use those lanes? That should have been one of your first questions.

It is notable that trucks must use the upper level lanes of the GWB. I suspect that there may have been some pressure from the trucking interests put on Christie/Samson/Port Authority about the "unfair" Ft. Lee lanes. David Wildstein sent an email to Bridget Kelly on 11/25, after the State Assembly Transportation Committee hearing, with a statement from Jeff Bader, co-owner of Golden Trucking based in Hillside, NJ and is President of the Bi-State Motor Carriers Association. Mr. Bader stated that the hearing was "nothing more than a dog and pony show...we (the transportation industry) are grateful to the PANYNJ for looking out for the 95% of drivers, including thousands of truckers every day, who can only use 75% off toll lanes....."

So, why would Wildstein have a statement from Mr. Bader that also uses the false narrative that the Ft. Lee lanes generate only 4.5% of the traffic? That statement from Mr. Bader was quoted by several major news organizations. It obviously was widely distributed be the governor's press office.

Mar. 15 2014 08:52 PM

I agree with George. Where is the discussion of Cuomo's role in this bi-state agency? Deafening silence on that front.

Mar. 11 2014 11:02 PM
AlisonSchusterShea from Non-Contigious section of South Hackensack, NJ

This is only the start. The real back story is PA Chairman Samson and his conflicted of interests regarding his clients like Maquarie Capital and the millions they made there as well as Samsons conlficted role in the nations largest municipal junk bond scandal involving the Meadowlands American Dream shopping mall and Samsons other client Triple Five, compounded by an even bigger conflict of interest regarding the issuer of the muni bonds, the conduit agency, the Bergen County Improvement Authority....

Mar. 10 2014 08:48 PM
Uptown Resident from Upper Manhattan

Terrific reporting.

I knew Baroni's goose was cooked when he tried to pull that "fairness" argument and tortured the numbers, trying to make it seem like a discussion about whether Fort Lee should have "25 percent of the 12 lanes on the bridge’s upper level" when they make up 5% of traffic. Nice try, but no cigar.

There are 12 toll booths on the upper level and Fort Lee’s onramp leads to three of them, yes. But it is set up so that only TWO of those are “exclusive” – the third is shared with I-95. And those two exclusives are also combined cash-ezpass tolls, so they move slowly. Baroni also neglected to mention the Palisades Parkway toll gates (which also feed into the upper level of the bridge after the Ft Lee tolls) and the lower level (entirely I-95). That means:

Upper Level – 12 toll booths from I-95 and Fort Lee, 7 from Palisades. (11 of the 19 are ezpass-only.)

Lower Level - 10 toll booths from I-95. (5 of the 10 are ezpass-only)

So 29 toll booths total. Fort Lee has 2.5/29ths of the toll throughput, or 8.6%. If you assume that each of the 16 EZ Pass lanes processes twice the number of cars, that would drop to 2.5/45 or 5.6%, pretty much the estimate given for the amount of traffic originating from Fort Lee.

So Baroni's entire argument was not whether 25% was equal to 5% but whether 5% was equal to 5%. Bogus right from the start.

Mar. 10 2014 06:17 PM
Randi from New Brunswick, NJ

This report demonstrates why a local traffic jam is a national story and why Chris Christie shouldn't be on anyone's ballot. I'm sure Christie thinks like Rod Blagojevich -- this is all just political business as usual. Its gotta stop.

Mar. 10 2014 12:50 PM
Maria from Nutley, NJ

Andrea, you've been absolutely tenacious with your reporting on the issues around the Port Authority. I am thrilled every time I hear one of your pieces. I am struck not only by their depth, but by the complexities involved in the reporting--all of the digging you must have had to do to get them. I appreciate it all so very much. These stories are the perfect demonstration of why we need a free press. Thank you so much and keep giving us more!!!

Mar. 10 2014 11:59 AM
Joe Killeen from Highlands

I spent half my working life in New York City and 1/2 in New Jersey. The political machinations in NYC paled in comparison to New Jersey. New Jersey's "shadow government" has controlled state and local government far too long. From the quality and cost of the food on resident's tables to the whack a mole legal system and forever debated and criticized educational system. New Jersey is a republic of interests and money and will never be a representative state or empathetic government until the game is overturned in detail and from top to bottom. Christie used the well known rules of the Jersey game for sound bites while all the time making sure his team got the big bucks.

Mar. 10 2014 11:58 AM
Terri from New Jersey

PANYNJ and Sandy Relief Fund---the governors' personal candy bowl and piggy bank!

Mar. 10 2014 10:10 AM

Wonderfully well-thought and helpful reporting, thank you.

Mar. 10 2014 10:09 AM
Donald Diamond

The silence of the New York appointees and members of the Bi-State Authority is deafening. No one has even admitted to releasing an email to the press that illuminated the lane closings as being a violation of New York and New Jersey laws.

Mar. 10 2014 09:49 AM
Fran from Short Hills, NJ

I've lived in NJ for almost 50 years, but it is just with this scandal that I am getting any insight into how NJ politics/government works, and it is really horrifying.

In addition to Andrea Bernstein's reporting on the Port Authority, see the NY Times on the "Safe Soil" environmental abuse of power, and the New Republic on Christie and his shenanigans with the NJ Democratic bosses.

I think we need an independent commission to take a look at this. A new job for Rush Holt and former Governor Tom Kean? NJ deserves better than this.

Mar. 10 2014 09:22 AM
Hades from Jersey Shore

"Hell is empty and some of the devils are in the Port Authority."
"Hell is empty and some of the devils are in the Sandy Relief Authority."
"Nothing is so well fortified that money cannot capture it."

Mar. 10 2014 09:19 AM

Don't leave out Cuomo as equally guilty of keeping the PA as a source for jobs and political payoffs.

Mar. 10 2014 09:03 AM
Stuart Hecker

You've done some great reporting on Governor Christie and the Port Authority, and are to be congratulated. With respect to today's article, I would like to e-mail it to some people (all potential financial contributors) but do not see how. In the future it might be good to make it easier for articles to be forwarded/shared.


Mar. 10 2014 08:56 AM
Nathan from Hoboken, NJ

We in NJ and the region deserve so much better than this. Why do we allow the PANYNJ to persist in this conduct? What improvements have occurred in our regional transportation over the last few years? Nicer airports? A couple upgraded station? What? Next to nothing. Instead the PANYNJ siphons off such a huge portion of our taxes dollars and tolls and where are our regional transportation plans? Why in 2014 is there no PATH to EWR? Why are there no regional taxis (well there are, thank you Uber)? The list goes on and on. Christie does care about us normal people who have to spent a chunk of our income and a huge chunk of our time navigating the regional mess created by the PANYNJ. We deserve so much better than this, we really do.

Mar. 10 2014 08:49 AM
Paul Ullman from Hoboken

Great reporting. Thank you. The Port Authority has been allowed to function as a separate personal tool of two governors for way too long.
The next elephant that I would love for you to focus on is the cost of
the new World Trade Center. It could be as high as $20b at this point and
its not finished. How is the Port managing this project and how much of our
daily tax payments (sorry, I mean toll payments) go to building this structure. Then we should know how much money Larry Siverstein and Douglas Durst stand to make from this taxpayer funded project.

Paul Ullman

Mar. 10 2014 08:07 AM

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