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.
At Port Authority, Christie Appointees Took Control
Sunday, January 12, 2014 - 09:00 PM
On the evening of September 14, the day after he ordered the re-opening of traffic lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the executive director of the Port Authority, Pat Foye, was in conversation with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top aides. “Anything else on Wildstein and Baroni,” Foye urgently emailed his director of bridges and tunnels. “2nd floor request. Need to know ASAP.”
“Second floor” is Albany-speak for the second floor of the state capitol, where Cuomo and his top staff have their offices.
But Cuomo had nothing public to say about the fracas for another three months, when he told Susan Arbetter of WCNY radio that he didn't know "anything more basically than what was in the newspapers” adding "basically this is a New Jersey issue." And if he or his staff ordered any action or inquiries, the documents are silent.
Meanwhile, Team Christie was emailing up a storm, making plans and exchanging messages behind Foye’s back. “What a piece of excrement,” Governor Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said of Foye after seeing his now famous email blowing the whistle on the bridge scheme. “A piece of crap,” Wildstein agreed.
The different responses illustrate the power imbalance at the Port Authority between Governor Cuomo and Governor Chris Christie, one where Christie assumed unusual control of the political arm of the bi-state authority, sources say.
To be sure, the documents – more than 2000 pages of them – were given in response to a request for a specific, New Jersey-based scheme. But interviews with more than a half dozen current and former Port Authority and Cuomo appointees confirm that while Christie was staffing the Port Authority with his political aides and allies – and while those appointees were using the agency for what might be called “non-transportation” ends, Cuomo was ceding power.
Now, some history. The Port Authority is a bi-state agency. By tradition, the chair of the board is appointed by the New Jersey governor, the executive director, by New York’s. Some years, ago, Governor George Pataki, a Republican, appointed George Marlin, the head of New York’s conservative party, to be the executive director of the Port Authority. The blatantly political appointment did not sit well with Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey’s Governor, also a Republican. She insisted on appointing a Deputy Director, who would report directly to the board. But even then, it was understood that operations would be run by New York.
In 2010, when Christie took office (a year before Cuomo), he rushed to staff up the agency. His top appointees were a former state senator, Bill Baroni and a political blogger, David Wildstein, who had once been Mayor of Livingston. A former Democratic Passaic county sheriff, Jerry Speziale, was given a job at the PAPD – and the sheriff’s seat went to a Republican.
As the Record reported in January 2012, some 50 jobs went to appointees whose transportation resumes were thin but who had strong ties to Christie. “They came in like cockroaches” was how one staffer described the new Christie appointees.
As for Cuomo, when he took office in 2011, a David Paterson appointee Chris Ward, was at the Port Authority helm. But Cuomo couldn’t replace Ward while the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was pending. So he focused on other things – gay marriage, changing the pension system, passing an on-time budget, cutting taxes.
When Cuomo axed Ward and appointed Foye after almost a year in office, “the concrete was set” on the New Jersey side, source familiar with the Port Authority said. Cuomo didn’t bother to staff up the Port Authority with a team of political loyalists.
So when the, ahem, excrement hit the fan, Foye was essentially alone. His emails to professional staff were immediately forwarded, privately, to Christie appointees. Two of his press spokespeople hid inquiries from him. As soon as he learned that Foye had halted the closures, Bill Baroni, Christie’s man, reached out to the chair of the Port Authority board, David Samson, a close Christie ally. “General, can I call you now?” Baroni wrote.
A few hours later, Wildstein emailed Bridget Ann Kelly, Christie's then deputy chief of staff. "We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate."
Four days later, Samson wrote to Scott Rechler, Cuomo’s top man on the board. “I am told the ED leaked to the WSJ,” Samson wrote after a story appeared in the Wall Street Journal. “ Very unfortunate for NY/NJ relations.” When Rechler pushed back, Samson wouldn’t budge “he is playing in traffic, made a big mistake” he said of Foye.
In mid-December, the Wall Street Journal reported that the political loyalty went all the up to Christie. The New Jersey Governor, the paper said, had called Cuomo to complain that Foye was pressing the New Jersey team too hard.
At a press conference that very day announcing his second resignation, that of Bill Baroni, Christie “categorically” denied the report.
Cuomo didn't push back. “The issue of the traffic study was primarily a New Jersey incident so our basic operating agreement is when it has to do with New Jersey Governor Christie handles it when it has to do with New York, I handle. It if it’s a management issue having to do with the port itself we handle it jointly. So I’m sure it is as Governor Christie says it is.”
Publicly, Governor Cuomo has expressed little interest in having a dog in this fight.