Peabody award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Six Ways the Christie Administration Blocked Reform at the Port Authority
Monday, March 10, 2014
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.