Cuomo Wants to Appoint His Own Inspector General at Port Authority

John Reitmeyer | March 8, 2017 | Politics
Commissioners argue that new IG could be used to throw a scare into employees and appointees who are thinking of blocking NY governor’s plans

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New Jersey lawmakers are crafting a resolution to formally oppose what they consider to be a new power play launched by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the latest wrinkle in what’s become an ongoing tug of war over the resources of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has proposed legislation in New York that would create a new, gubernatorial-appointed inspector general position at the bistate agency that would ostensibly be focused on policing the behavior of New York appointees and employees. The effort, his office says, is necessary given that legislation seeking to reform the Port Authority in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal remains stalled in New Jersey.

Answering only to New York’s governor, the new inspector general could influence agency decisions if commissioners or other personnel are concerned that a vote could run afoul of the wishes of Cuomo and his successors, thus making employees targets of a punitive criminal investigation.

That helps explain why last week Port Authority Chairman John Degnan of New Jersey and five other commissioners — including one of the Cuomo’s appointees — sent a scathing letter to lawmakers in New York, labeling the governor’s proposal an attempt to “seize political control” of the agency “through the coercive force of threatened investigation, litigation and potential criminal prosecution of any Commissioner or managerial employee.”

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by NJ Spotlight, said the proposed New York inspector-general position threatens the agency’s independence and would duplicate duties that its current in-house inspector general already fulfills. The six commissioners urged the lawmakers to reject Cuomo’s proposal.

“If the Governor, through his own appointed IG, becomes both intense political advocate and initiator/investigator and criminal prosecutor, the independence of the Agency, its Commissioners and managers will disappear,” the letter said.

New Jersey Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) said lawmakers are also concerned about Cuomo’s proposal, which he called a “clear threat” to the Port Authority’s independence, since much of what it does impacts both states. A resolution formally opposing the proposed New York inspector general could be voted on as early as Monday in the Senate, he said.

Dust still settling on capital spending plan

Cuomo’s push to create the new position comes as the dust is still settling in the wake of the Port Authority’s vote last month to approve a 10-year capital plan that sets aside significant funding for several top New Jersey priorities, including $3.5 billion for a planned replacement of the agency’s aging midtown Manhattan bus terminal, a project that could cost as much as $10 billion to complete. Cuomo was said to have only supported $2 billion for the bus-terminal replacement, but Degnan held firm for the higher amount in a broader deal struck with his New York counterparts that also involved putting funding into the overall $32 billion capital plan for airport projects considered to be top priorities across the Hudson.

The inspector-general proposal from Cuomo also comes as Gordon and other Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey have refused to vote on changes that Gov. Chris Christie made to their own Port Authority reform legislation, turning it into an identical version of a measure that’s already been approved by Cuomo and lawmakers in New York. The New Jersey lawmakers have said the version endorsed by Christie and Cuomo isn’t strong enough, and because it would require immediate management changes at the agency, it would also mean Degnan would no longer serve as chairman and be in a position to counter Cuomo’s power plays.

The Port Authority, which was created in 1921 with approval from Congress, owns and operates most of the region’s major airports, ports, bridges, and tunnels. Though set up to be run by professional staff, the governors in each state have the power to veto Port Authority actions, and bistate politics has long dominated the agency.

Generally, legislation that impacts the Port Authority must be approved by lawmakers in both states and also be signed into law by each state’s governor. But Cuomo is apparently proposing to create the New York inspector general position without approval from lawmakers in New Jersey. Cuomo’s proposal says the new inspector general would be “responsible for investigating and prosecuting any illegal behavior as it pertains to New York-related Port Authority conduct.”

Cuomo spokesman on Bridgegate reforms

Jon Weinstein, a Cuomo spokesman, said the effort comes as the reforms proposed in the wake of Bridgegate have still not been put in place as a matter of law. Just Monday, former Port Authority chairman and close Christie confidant David Samson was sentenced to serve a year of house arrest and four years of probation for using his position at the agency to convince United Airlines to operate a money-losing flight that made it easier for Samson to travel from Newark airport to his vacation home in South Carolina. Although it came to light due to the Bridgegate investigation, the charges were entirely separate.

“New York can no longer tolerate the lack of reform, and there must be some oversight if the board is to be allowed to continue to act,” Weinstein said, referring to the agency’s board of commissioners.

But the letter signed by Degnan and Commissioners Richard Bagger, Kenneth Lipper, Ray Pocino, William “Pat” Schuber, and David Steiner suggested Cuomo’s proposal has more to do with taking over full control of the agency. Degnan, Bagger, Pocino, Schuber, and Steiner are all Christie appointees, and Lipper is an appointee of Cuomo’s.

“One of the most important features of the Port Authority is its independence, fostered by at least some insulation from the worst of politics, in decision making or awards of contracts for reasons other than merit or price,” the letter said. “This should be preserved given that regional transportation is at the heart of our bistate economy.”

Existing independent inspector general

The letter also said the Port Authority’s existing independent Inspector General’s Office, created in 1992 and staffed with 158 former federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials and auditors, has a strong record that includes 1,700 investigations, and numerous arrests and prosecutions. The case that led to Samson’s conviction on corruption charges was pursued by the inspector general, as was Bridgegate and a high-profile fraud scheme involving the One World Trade Center project, the letter said.

“We are hard-pressed to understand how a New York State Inspector General of the Port Authority, residing in and serving at the pleasure of the New York Governor’s office, with the responsibilities mirroring the current Port Authority Inspector General, can offer any advantage over the current internal independent IG,” the letter said.

Christie’s office did not respond yesterday to a request for comment on Cuomo’s proposal or the issues raised by the Port Authority commissioners in response.

But Gordon, a sponsor of the New Jersey Port Authority reform legislation and an outspoken advocate for the bus-terminal replacement project, said Cuomo’s move is especially concerning since it comes as Christie has taken a largely hands-off approach to the Port Authority in the wake of Bridgegate, which involved two of his former close allies who were employed at the agency.

“I’d call it a clear threat to the independence and the regional mission of the Port Authority,” Gordon said.

And while the proposed position would appear to be focused only on New York issues, Gordon said nearly everything at the Port Authority impacts both states in some manner. The bus terminal is a good example of the bistate connections since it is located in New York but used by thousands of New Jersey commuters, meaning it’s important to both states’ economies.

“Why do we need this other than to intimidate those who oppose Gov. Cuomo?” Gordon said.