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Combative Degnan Wins Senate OK To Chair Port Authority

Degnan
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

John Degnan, the former Democratic attorney-general whom Gov. Chris Christie tapped to take over the chairmanship of the embattled Port Authority, told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing yesterday that he believed the politically motivated closure of George Washington Bridge was an “outrageous misuse of office.” Had he been in charge, he added, he would have fired those responsible.

But Degnan, who has served over the years in sensitive troubleshooting capacities for a succession of Democratic and Republican governors and Supreme Court chief justices, also said that he did not regard his new role of Port Authority chairman to be that of an independent reformer. Christie’s and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s power to veto any and all Port Authority actions meant that he would have to be accountable to both governors, Degnan noted.

With the Port Authority under investigation by six federal and state agencies and committees in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, the committee questioned Degnan for more than three hours on his views on the future role and restructuring of the Port Authority, the degree to which he would be independent of Christie, and how to empower Port Authority employees to stand up to improper political interference.

Degnan and George Laufenberg, administrative director of the New Jersey Carpenters Fund whom Christie nominated to fill another vacancy on the 12-member bistate board, both won approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday afternoon and were then confirmed by the full Senate.

Degnan will be elected chairman by his fellow commissioner at the next Port Authority board meeting, replacing David Samson, Christie’s former campaign counsel and top-level advisor who is the subject of several investigations into conflict-of-interest allegations. His role in suppressing public disclosure of the reasons behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures also is under investigation.

Degnan already has been serving on a six-member panel appointed by Christie and Cuomo to recommend Port Authority reforms. That panel issued its preliminary 60-day report last week, but Degnan frustrated Democrats with his reluctance to offer detailed responses to questions about key Port Authority issues.

In fact, yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee mirrored contentious Supreme Court hearings both in the intensity of the questions asked about Degnan’s background and in Degnan’s determination not to show his hand on issues he had not yet fully investigated.

Degnan said he personally did not believe the Port Authority should be dismantled into two separate state agencies -- an option Christie and Cuomo suggested was worth studying. But he said that the panel would look into whether the Port Authority’s role in the region’s economic development should be restricted or expanded, and “one of the options would be dissolution.”

He refused to commit to push to eliminate the $900 million in Port Authority funds that Christie and Cuomo put into a Regional Economic Development Bank to fund “political Christmas tree projects” in their respective states and put the money back into the agency’s capital budget to fund more-needed projects like the refurbishment of the dilapidated Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He said he had only learned about the set-asides the day before and noted that such a decision would require the approval of both Christie and Cuomo, as well as his fellow commissioners.

Degnan declined to agree with Democratic characterizations that the Port Authority suffered from “political over-management” and interference. But he did say that “if the lanes were closed as an act of political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee or any other individual and not as part of a legitimate traffic study -- and that seems to be validated by some of the evidence -- it's an outrageous misuse of office.”

He said he was “horrified as all right-minded people should be” by the lane closures, and added he would have fired those responsible and would have expected the support of both Christie and Cuomo if he had done so.

Degnan, who served as state attorney-general under Democratic Gov. Brendan T. Byrne from 1978 to 1981, said his first priority would be to implement ethics reforms that would provide an avenue for Port Authority staffers to object to abuses of power like Bridgegate without fear of political retribution -- a reference to testimony before the Assembly Transportation Committee by senior Port Authority staffers that they feared for their jobs if they objected to the lane closures. “I can’t think of an agency that is more challenged and more in need of reform than the Port Authority,” he said.

Degnan, who had previously maintained public silence in the two months since his nomination at Christie’s request, used his opening statement to angrily dispute allegations that his son’s appointment to positions as an assistant U.S. Attorney and as chairman of the State Commission on Investigation by Christie would impair his ability to be independent of the governor.

He also denied charges that he had provided “political cover” for Christie by agreeing to serve on a judicial advisory review board after the previous board resigned en masse to protest the governor's undermining of New Jersey’s 60-year tradition of judicial independence by deciding not to reappoint Supreme Court Associate Justice John Wallace because he wanted to replace liberal justices with conservatives.

Degnan said he would have reappointed both Wallace and Associate Justice Helen Hoens, a conservative Republican Christie also declined to reappoint, but said that the governor was within his rights to refuse to reappoint Wallace because of his disagreement with the justice’s vote on Abbott v. Burke school-funding issues.

Degnan also defended his work on a commission on school violence appointed by Christie in the wake of the Sandy Hill School shootings in Connecticut, noting that Christie endorsed many of the commission’s 50 recommendations.

“My record demonstrates my integrity and refusal to compromise my own ethics,” Degnan said, challenging legislators to ask the various Democratic and Republican governors and the three Supreme Court chief justices who had appointed him to serve on various commissions in the three decades after he lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1981 and joined the Chubb Insurance Company as a senior executive.

Degnan’s aggressiveness surprised Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who said he had served “on this committee for a decade and I have not seen that combative nature in this committee I think ever.”

When Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) pressed Degnan on whether Christie was correct in his 2010 decision to cancel the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail passenger tunnel, which was to be funded partly with $3 billion from the Port Authority, Degnan said he was “not prepared to make that judgment” on a four-year-old decision without a thorough review.

He said he believed the Port Authority should play a role in the construction of a future passenger rail tunnel, but refused to second-guess Christie’s decision. “If you can’t accept that, vote against me, Senator,” Degnan snapped.

Gill did just that, saying that Degnan’s son Philip’s role as executive director of the State Commission on Investigation would have a chilling effect on any future role the SCI might play in investigating the Port Authority. Degnan dismissed that premise, noting that his son would recuse himself from any SCI investigation, and furthermore, that the SCI had never been called upon to investigate the Port Authority in its 45-year history.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) voted against Degnan too, citing a variety of issues. He asserted that Degnan’s decision to serve on the judicial review advisory board after Christie’s refusal to reappoint Wallace undermined judicial independence. He told Degnan that he “did a gross disservice to the people of the state of New Jersey on the gun-control commission by not recommending one gun-control measure” in the wake of the Sandy Hill School shootings. “All of the recommendations were consistent with what Gov. Christie wanted,” Lesniak said, referring to Christie’s reluctance to support any gun-control measures at a time when he was in the running for the GOP vice-presidential nomination.

“What this authority needs is not just someone who will be responsible to Gov. Christie, but someone who will be independent,” Lesniak said.

“I don’t believe this nominee will do that,” he concluded. “I hope I’m wrong. I vote no.”

Degnan, however, won the support of the five Republicans and the other six Democrats on the commission, including both Scutari and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the cochair of the legislative committee investigating Bridgegate. Weinberg noted that she met privately with both Degnan and Laufenberg and brought along Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth), the Republican committee member who has been most vocal in calling for Port Authority reform legislation, as a demonstration of her commitment to bipartisan reform. ”I believe you and I trust you and I will be at Port Authority meetings to watch you,” Weinberg warned.

Port Authority commissioners also will attend future hearings on toll hikes and other critical issues, Degnan promised.

“For the Port Authority not to have a commissioner or two at every hearing is an insult to the public,” Degnan said in response to Weinberg’s complaint. “That will not happen again.”

Lesniak pressed Degnan hard to push for the abolition of the Port Authority’s Regional Economic Development Bank. The fund, which had been used previously by other governors as a “political Christmas tree,” was suspended in 2008, and “then Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie put it on steroids” by allocating $900 million for it. However, Sens. Joseph M. Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) and Brian Stack (D-Hudson) reminded Degnan and the audience that one man’s Christmas tree is another man’s priority. Stack pushed Degnan to continue the special aid provided to Union City, where he is mayor, to make up for traffic congestion and other costs.

And Kyrillos pressed both Degnan and Lautenberg to make sure that the Port Authority honored its commitment to provide $5 million to Aberdeen for a 260-acre regional park in his district as a match for $5.5 million already raised by the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, the Monmouth Conservancy, and the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper.

The money was to come from New Jersey’s share of $30 million set aside for each state for estuary projects as part of the Regional Economic Development Bank, but it has been held up for six months in the wake of the Bridgegate controversy “because the Port Authority is too paralyzed to take any action,” Kyrillos complained.

“It’s certainly reasonable to consider whether these kinds of projects are part of the Port Authority’s core mission of transportation and infrastructure going forward, but I do feel strongly about past commitments being fulfilled,” he said. “This is an important project in the Port region in Monmouth County that was all but approved except for a vote that is just a formality by the Port Authority commissioners.

“The site in Aberdeen was on the priority list of estuary projects for 14 years,” he said, noting that the site is approved for the construction of about 220 houses if the Port Authority funding falls through. “The commissioners there now are not fulfilling their obligations,” Kyrillos complained to Degnan.

Lesniak said, however, that it was time to end the parceling out of Port Authority toll money to non-core projects that bleed money away from critical capital priorities like the Port Authority Bus Terminal, whose 16 roof leaks were ignored until Weinberg and other legislators complained, and the Port Authority suddenly managed to divert $90 million from other projects as a down payment on the needed $900 million refurbishment.

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