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Police Union Implicated in Bridgegate Owed Hundreds of Jobs to Christie

Mark J. Magyar | February 18, 2014
Nunziato and Christie
Paul Nunziato, president of the Port Authority police union, endorsing Christie in 2013.

Gov. Chris Christie won the loyalty of the Port Authority police union whose actions are under investigation in Bridgegate by guaranteeing that its rank-and-file would be in charge of security at the new Freedom Tower and by pushing a Port Authority police expansion that added hundreds of union jobs and dues-paying members.

Now the police union and its leaders are under investigation by both the Legislature and the Port Authority for enforcing the George Washington Bridge lane closures, telling disgruntled motorists to call Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to make sure he knew the lane closures were aimed at him, and backing up the Christie administration’s cover story that the closures were part of a legitimate traffic study.

The police union’s enthusiastic role in the Bridgegate lane closures -- which were ordered by Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly in apparent political retaliation against Sokolich for not endorsing Christie for reelection -- came nearly eight months after the Republican governor won the endorsement of the Port Authority Patromen's Benevolent Association President Paul Nunziato and his then-1,300 member union.

The Port Authority union’s loyalty to Christie is easy to understand, said Martin Robins, director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center: “The union had a very focused interest in this: jobs and dues. And that’s what Christie gave them.”

The Port Authority police force, most of whom are represented by Nunziato’s union, increased in size from 1,500 when Christie took office to 1,700 when Nunziato’s union endorsed him last January and will go up to 2,000 by the end of this year.

Nunziato publicly praised Port Authority Chairman David Samson, Christie’s highest-ranking appointee at the bistate agency, for providing critical support for the police department expansion at a promotions ceremony in Jersey City on October 8, just a month after the Bridgegate lane closures.

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Nunziato failed to respond Sunday night and yesterday to a series of -mailed questions about the Christie endorsement, his union’s role in Bridgegate, and Port Authority staffing issues. Robert Egbert, the Port Authority PBA’s public relations officer, and other officials were unavailable for comment at the PBA offices yesterday. “It’s a police holiday,” the PBA official answering the phone explained.

Robins noted that “it costs a lot to add 300 to 500 jobs. The more money you spend on operating expenses, the less you can spend on new projects. And these are not inexpensive jobs. The average Port Authority police officer makes north of $100,000.”

The Citizens Budget Commission, a New York City watchdog group, reported 14 months ago that average salaries for Port Authority rank-and-file police officers hit $108,157 in their sixth year and rise to $117,884 in their 25th year, not including ample overtime, pensions, and health benefits. Port Authority police, unlike their counterparts in New Jersey, do not contribute to their health insurance costs, the CBC report noted, and the cost of benefits adds 50 percent to base salaries.

The most senior Port Authority police earned average pay of $83.99 an hour -- 57 percent more than the $53.36 average hourly wage of the New Jersey State Police officer and 43 percent more than the $58.86 earned by New York City’s police.

It was Christie who guaranteed that the higher-paid Port Authority police, not New York City police, would patrol the new Freedom Tower a cost that is ultimately borne by tollpayers on the GWB, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the Bayonne and Goethals bridges and the Outerbridge crossing; by travelers at the Port Authority’s three airports; and by shippers, and ultimately consumers, using the Port of New York and New Jersey.

That’s what Christie told Nunziato and his union when he spoke to hundreds of Port Authority police jammed into a ballroom at the Newark Airport Hilton to give him their endorsement on January 22, 2013, more than nine months before the election.

“As I stand here this morning, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Given all I’ve learned over the years, all the ways that we’ve worked together, never, not ever on my watch, will there be any other police force who will patrol the new World Trade Center other than the Port Authority police,” Christie vowed.

Christie’s veto authority over Port Authority decisions gave him the power to keep his promise to unilaterally block efforts to allow the New York City Police Department patrol the new Freedom Tower, ending what Nunziato said had been a “looming issue” since 2008.

Furthermore, Christie made it clear that he would insist that Port Authority police patrol the perimeters of Newark, Kennedy, and LaGuardia airports, siding with Nunziato and his union against Port Authority professionals who had been seeking to fully replace foot patrols with sophisticated electronic monitoring technology they believed would be both more efficient and less costly.

“Three short years ago our agency was replacing boots on the ground with technology. We all know that technology can enhance law enforcement, but it cannot replace police officers,” Nunziato told NJTV.

“He stood shoulder to shoulder with me and my members on all our security issues. We think he’s a strong leader,” he said, explaining why his union broke its streak of electing three Democratic gubernatorial candidates in a row to back Christie.

The Port Authority police union’s backing was the second major labor endorsement Christie lined up as part of his campaign to convince national Republican leaders that he could pull in votes from organized labor and other traditional Democratic constituencies, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, if he ran for the White House in 2016. The first major union endorsement came the month before from the Laborers International Union of North America led by Ray Pocino, whom Christie had appointed to the boards of both the Port Authority and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

The pledges to preserve Port Authority police jurisdiction over the new Freedom Tower and to maintain “boots on the ground” at the three airports increased the number of officers that would be needed as part of the reorganization plan being implemented by Joseph Dunne, the Port Authority’s chief security officer, which will add 10 new deputy chiefs and an array of other supervisory promotions.

The ceremony at which Nunziato praised Samson and Dunne was held to mark the promotions of 54 Port Authority police officers. In addition, 200 new Port Authority police cadets graduated in December and another 300 started their police academy training in January -- the two largest classes in the history of the force -- which is expected to push the ranks of the Port Authority Police Department over 2,100 before attrition reduces it to the preferred size of 2,000.

The involvement of the Port Authority police union in the lane closures has been an issue almost from the beginning, when reporters discovered that Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, had complained that Port Authority police were telling motorists that the lane closures were his fault.

But there is also a question about whether the Port Authority police union’s leaders played a role in the initial coverup of the reason for the lane closures, Robins, a former high-ranking New Jersey state transportation official, noted.

Coming up with the Closures

During his November 25 testimony before the Assembly Transportation Committee, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, Christie’s top political lieutenant at the Port Authority, testified that Nunziato and PBA Treasurer Michael DeFillipis, whom Baroni identified as “the delegate that worked at the George Washington Bridge,” came up with the idea to test whether closing off two of three toll lanes heading into the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee would improve traffic flow from Route 80.

Nine days later, Nunziato backed up Baroni’s story, telling reporters outside a Port Authority board meeting that he was the one who suggested the idea for the traffic study to Wildstein.

Speaking to reporters, Nunziato shrugged off complaints from Fort Lee officials that they had not been notified of the lane closures that would clog streets for four days in a town that already suffered from bridge traffic tie-ups, insisting that Port Authority police had not communicated with Fort Lee authorities in the 26 years he had been on the force.

He dismissed complaints by Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye that the unauthorized lane closures -- which Wildstein and Port Authority police had intentionally kept hidden from Foye for four days -- violated federal and state laws, characterizing Foye’s contention as “a load of garbage.” He ridiculed the idea that the lane closures were political retaliation aimed at Sokolich.

Nunziato concluded that the battle over the lane closures was just the latest chapter in a political rivalry between New Jersey and New York over control of the Port Authority – a contest he compared to the Sharks and the Jets in “West Side Story” -- and made it clear his loyalties lay with New Jersey.

If Baroni and Nunziato thought their assertions would put an end to the controversy over the lane closures, they were wrong: Just over a month after Nunziato’s impromptu press conference, their cover story that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study suggested by the Port Authority exploded when Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly’s infamous August 13 “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein surfaced in the emails that Wildstein had turned over under subpoena to the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Further, Nunziato, who said he had spoken to Wildstein hundreds of times over the preceding several years, provided no documents or emails to back his story in his response to a subpoena from the same committee. In fact, Nunziato turned over no documents related to Bridgegate at all.

Nunziato has made no further comment since December 4 on the assertions that he and Baroni made, and it is unclear whether he provided any additional documents in response to the new Joint Select Committee on Investigation’s subpoena.

Scrutiny of the Port Authority police union was further heightened this weekend when MSNBC’s Steven Kornacki discovered that the “Chip” who drove Wildstein to the George Washington Bridge to view the traffic tie-ups on September 9, the morning of the closure, was none other than Port Authority Police Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels, who is the brother of Christie senior campaign adviser Jeff Michaels and who coached Christie’s son in a youth hockey league a few years ago. The Christies and the Michaels are lifelong friends who grew up together in Livingston.

“The Governor has never had any conversations with either Jeff or Chip Michaels on this topic,” Christie spokesman Keven Roberts said yesterday.

But the disclosure of the Michaels connection renewed speculation about what Wildstein was referring to when he said that “evidence exists” that Christie knew about the lane closures earlier than he admitted.

Christie said at his marathon January 9th news conference at which he announced the firings of Kelly and former campaign manager Bill Stepien and that he had no idea that the GWB lane closures were not part of a legitimate traffic study until the day before.

Christie later said on New Jersey 101.5 FM on February 3 that he asked his chief of staff and chief counsel to look into the lane closures on October 1 after the Wall Street Journal disclosed that Foye said he believed federal and state laws might have been broken by the closures, which Wildstein and Port Authority police union officials kept hidden from Foye and other Port Authority higher-ups appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, rather than Christie.

What Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd and Chief Counsel Charlie McKenna found, whether they talked to Baroni, Wildstein or Nunziato, and what they reported to Christie should turn up in the latest round of legislative committee subpoenas.

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