Christie Names Chief of State’s Watchdog Agency to Fill Comptroller Post

John Reitmeyer, Budget Reporter | September 23, 2015 | Politics
Governor’s choice to fill vacancy is son of recently appointed Port Authority chairman

Philip J. Degnan
The executive director of the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation is Gov. Chris Christie’s pick to serve as the next state comptroller.

Christie announced his selection of Philip J. Degnan, a lawyer who is the son of Port Authority Chairman John Degnan, in a news release yesterday.

Philip Degnan, a Democrat, is a former federal prosecutor who’s served as the executive director of the SCI since 2011. Beginning next month, he will become the third person to serve as the state’s top cabinet-level fiscal watchdog since the Office of the State Comptroller position was created in 2007.

Degnan, in a brief interview with NJ Spotlight yesterday, said he’s “incredibly honored” to be picked for the position by Christie, a second-term Republican. He declined further comment, citing the pending Senate confirmation process.

Under Degnan’s leadership, the SCI, an independent watchdog organization created by legislation in 1968, has issued reports on prescription pill and heroin use; circumvention of solid waste and recycling oversight, abuses in the bail-bond industry, and costs covered by taxpayers when union leaders take leave.

Degnan will take over the comptroller’s office in the wake of acting Comptroller Marc Larkins’ resignation last month just days after questions were raised in a NJ Advance Media story about a longtime friend he named to lead the office’s Medicaid Fraud Division.

Larkins had served as acting comptroller since late 2013. He followed former Comptroller Matthew Boxer, another former federal prosecutor who was picked by former Gov. Jon Corzine to fill the office’s inaugural six-year term.

The primary duties of the comptroller’s office are to audit government finances, examine the efficiency of government programs, and scrutinize government contracts. The comptroller is also empowered to investigate misconduct, waste and abuse at all levels of government in New Jersey, including the state’s Medicaid program.

By design, the comptroller serves six-year terms that do not match up with the four-year gubernatorial terms, an offset that is supposed to give the comptroller more independence than other cabinet-level officials.

Degnan, prior to becoming executive director of the SCI, served since 2004 as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, prosecuting cases involving child exploitation, drug trafficking, weapons possession and bank robbery. He also served as coordinator of the interagency Counter-Proliferation Working Group for the District of New Jersey, handling matters involving national security and foreign policy.

Degnan is a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina and has a law degree from Seton Hall University Law School.

Christie, in the news release, called Degnan “a diligent, tireless prosecutor and an exceptional leader.”

“I am proud to name Phil as the New Jersey State Comptroller, who will bring the integrity and investigative experience necessary to effectively lead this independent office,” Christie said. “I want to thank Phil for taking on this important role so that the Office of State Comptroller can continue to deliver a more efficient and transparent state government at every level.”
Degnan will take over the comptroller’s office on an acting basis in mid-October; Christie said in the news release that he plans to formally nominate him for the position in the coming weeks.

Christie picked Degnan’s father, former state Attorney General John Degnan, to lead the Port Authority last year in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane- closure scandal and amid the investigations that grew out of it.

Those investigations included a federal probe of former Port Authority chairman David Samson’s interaction with executives from United Airlines, the largest carrier at the Port Authority’s Newark Liberty International Airport. United Airlines announced earlier this month that three top executives, including CEO Jeff Smisek, were stepping down amid the ongoing probe. Samson, a close advisor of Christie’s who led his 2009 transition team, resigned in March 2014.