Republican legislators who have been urging the Select Committee on Investigation to broaden its focus beyond the George Washington Bridge lane closures got their wish yesterday, as Democrats and Republicans alike grilled Port Authority Commissioner William “Pat” Schuber on how such an array of scandals could have beset the bistate agency.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the committee’s cochair, led Democrats in questioning the behind-the-scenes machinations of Port Authority staffers in orchestrating the massive 2011 toll hike, as well as the failure of Schuber and other Port Authority higher-ups to dig into the reasons for the lane closures as the Bridgegate scandal unfolded between September and January.
Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth) led Republicans in zeroing in on the Port Authority’s questionable payments to an architect for unsolicited work, excessive real estate holdings in Jersey City, conflict of interest policies, failure to adequately pursue reports of ethics violations, and the wisdom of doling out special grants to municipalities instead of using whatever money is available for needed airport and infrastructure repairs.
It marked the first time since the formation of the committee more than four months ago that the panel’s four Republican legislators devoted their energies not to defending the Christie administration’s response to Bridgegate and questioning the purpose of the committee, but to aggressively going after Port Authority mismanagement — which they have been arguing should be the panel’s primary focus.
Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex), Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s closest ally on the panel, urged Schuber to make sure that agency at least examines the merits of breaking up the Port Authority into two separate state agencies – as both Christie and New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested as a possibility.
But O’Toole also suggested the idea of having Port Authority commissioners and top executives go before judiciary committees in both the New York and New Jersey Senate, and banning Port Authority commissioners from making political contributions.
Handlin, who has been the most vocal advocate of pushing through Port Authority reform legislation immediately rather than waiting for the conclusion of the Bridgegate investigations, questioned how the Port Authority could vote to pay $500,000 to an architect for unsolicited drawings for the Goethals Bridge reconstruction project at the suggestion of Port Authority Commissioners Anthony Sartor and David Steiner.
Handlin questioned “whether the Port Authority routinely paid people off to avoid a lawsuit” — the reason suggested for the payment — and was clearly unhappy that Schuber didn’t remember anything about the payment.
She also cited the $400 million lawsuit filed by Jersey City challenging the Port Authority’s accumulation of millions of dollars worth of tax-exempt properties, charging that “the Port Authority amasses property like a billionaire collects art.”
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Monmouth) targeted the Port Authority’s squandering of money on grants to municipalities for studies when John F. Kennedy Airport and other Port facilities are in such dire need of infrastructure work, and the Port Authority’s failure to curb police overtime — a “labor abuse,” as he put it, that led to one police officer earning $331,000 in a single year.
And Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) noted that existing Port Authority ethics rules require commissioners to recuse themselves in cases where their law firm has an interest in an issue — an apparent, if unnamed, slap at former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who is reportedly under investigation by the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York and by the New Jersey Ethics Commission on various conflict-of-interest allegations involving his Wolff and Samson law firm.
Schuber — like Michael Drewniak, Christina Genovese Renna , and Matt Mowers, the three current and former Christie administration officials who testified under oath before the committee before him – denied any advance knowledge of the September 9-13 George Washington Bridge lane closures.
Like Drewniak and high-ranking Christie administration officials interviewed by Randy Mastro’s law firm as part of an internal investigation commissioned by Christie, Schuber said he regarded a September 19 complaint by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) — as well as Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s September 13 letter alleging that the lane closures might have broken federal and state law — as examples of unjustified political partisanship.
“It was a gubernatorial election year. There was a high degree of partisanship,” said Schuber, who added he “didn’t want to get in the middle of it.”
Schuber noted, however, that he was the only Port Authority official who responded in any way to the allegations, calling Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich — the alleged target of Bridgegate because of his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection — because he was concerned about the Port Authority’s failure to properly notify local officials of the lane closures. He also called back Weinberg.
“I decided to surprise her with a direct call and tell her I was disappointed she had made it personal,” Schuber said in an email to Samson. “I don’t think she expected that. I think she has never gotten over our 1998 Race!”
Schuber was referring to his defeat of Weinberg in the 1998 Bergen County Executive election.
Both Wisniewski and Weinberg, the committee’s cochair, sharply criticized Schuber for failing to follow up on questions raised by Democrats and by reporters about both the lane closures and other allegations of mismanagement at the Port Authority – including those raised by their Republican colleagues on the committee yesterday.
“I think we got our first firsthand glimpse of the Port Authority by hearing from a commissioner who didn’t seem to ask a question about anything,” Weinberg said. “I’m always curious about everybody’s lack of curiosity.”
“We have a budding public health crisis here,” Wisniewski quipped. “We have people coming in with broad memory lapses about anything they heard or said about lane closures. What’s troubling about Commissioner Schuber is he testified he has fiduciary responsibility . . . yet he asked no questions.”
One of the surprises of the hearing was the release of an email from Samson to Schuber: “Pat: I received a copy of Loretta’s 9/19 letter to you about her being ‘disappointed . . . on a personal level.’ What a jerk!”
Weinberg – who famously was the target of Christie’s suggestion that the press “take the bat out on her” — shrugged off Samson’s comment.
“I’ve been called a jerk by bigger men,” she said.