New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo may want his own inspector general at the Port Authority, but even if he gets his way the position is almost certainly going to be an empty suit, with no real power over the bistate agency — unless he can get New Jersey lawmakers to sign onto his scheme.
That’s the legal opinion of the Office of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan research arm of the New Jersey Legislature. And Garden State lawmakers argue that it should compel Cuomo to give up on his plan.
Further, the scheme apparently would run afoul of the bistate compact that set up the agency under the authority of the U.S. Constitution nearly 100 years ago, according to the OLS opinion, which was released yesterday by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). Adding to responsibilities already covered in the compact would require action by the legislatures in both states, the opinion said.
“The Port Authority Compact does not authorize the State of New York to unilaterally establish a New York Inspector General,” the opinion noted.
New Jersey lawmakers refuse
The New York governor’s office has said the additional inspector general is needed since New Jersey lawmakers refuse to advance reform legislation backed by Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.
A spokesman for Cuomo pointed yesterday to the stalled reform effort in response to the lawmakers’ highlighting of the new legal opinion.
The drafting and release of the OLS legal opinion comes as New Jersey lawmakers and Cuomo, a Democrat, have been at odds over a series of issues related to the Port Authority in recent months. They include the amount of capital funding that’s been budgeted for a replacement of the agency’s midtown Manhattan bus terminal, and the broader effort to reform the Port Authority in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal.
Cuomo proposed legislation in New York earlier this year that would create a new, gubernatorial-appointed inspector general at the bistate agency that would ostensibly police the behavior of New York appointees and employees. But since the new official would answer only to New York’s governor, New Jersey lawmakers are concerned it could allow Cuomo to wield additional power since employees could fear becoming targets of punitive criminal investigations if they meet New York’s displeasure.
Attempt to ‘seize political control’
The proposal led Port Authority chairman John Degnan of New Jersey and five other commissioners — including one of the Cuomo’s own appointees — to send a scathing letter to lawmakers in New York that called it 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.”
A New York inspector-general position also threatens the agency’s independence and would duplicate duties that its current in-house inspector general already fulfills, the commissioners said in the letter.
Weinberg also said Cuomo should abandon his proposal now that the opinion makes clear it would have no standing without approval from New Jersey lawmakers, which she declared is not going to happen.
“A New York Port Authority Inspector General created unilaterally by statute by New York’s governor and Legislature would have no power, authority, or jurisdiction over the Port Authority without New Jersey’s agreement. And New Jersey will not agree,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg is also sponsoring a resolution along with Sens. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) and Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) that formally urges New York lawmakers to reject Cuomo’s proposal, citing redundancy with the existing inspector-general position and the potential that it could undermine the agency’s overall independence.
‘…virtually unlimited power’
“It is designed to give the New York governor’s appointee virtually unlimited power to go after anyone, including New Jersey commissioners — which is why Port Authority commissioners from both states signed a letter in opposition,” Kyrillos said.
“If Governor Cuomo suspects wrongdoing or ethical misconduct, he should ask the authority’s existing Office of the Inspector General for a ruling,” Gordon said.
While the resolution has bipartisan support, Republicans and Democrats in New Jersey have been unable to agree on what to do about the broader effort to reform the Port Authority in the wake of Bridgegate. Gordon and other Democrats say legislation 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.
But Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), have attempted to force a vote, arguing that it’s better to put in place reforms immediately since the bill has already been passed by New York lawmakers and endorsed by Cuomo.
Amid the stalemate, which is likely to last until at least early next year when Christie is due to leave office under New Jersey’s constitutional term limits, Cuomo’s office has said New York needs its own inspector general at the agency. Cuomo spokesman Jon Weinstein reinforced that position when reached yesterday.
“It’s amazing that people would not want to reform practices post-Bridgegate and it’s unacceptable to New York,” Weinstein said.