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Democrats Expand the Scope of Port Authority Investigations

Weinberg, Wisniewski want structural overhaul of Port Authority; U.S. Senate panel launches inquiry; criminal probe may be next

Loretta Weinberg
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.

As they wait for Port Authority officials to comply with their most recent wave of subpoenas, key Democratic lawmakers are debating how to reform a powerful bistate agency they regard as dysfunctional, unresponsive, and out of control. They also must decide whether to seek a criminal investigation against those responsible for the Bridge-gate lane closures.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said yesterday she will introduce a Senate resolution Thursday calling for a congressional review of the structure and operations of the Port Authority. Weinberg's legislative district was directly affected by four days of traffic tie-ups caused by a rogue Port Authority official’s secret closure of two Fort Lee access lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge

Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), whose panel hauled in senior Port Authority officials under subpoena last week, said legal staff at the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services is reviewing whether any federal or state laws were broken by the lane closures, which impeded interstate commerce from New Jersey to New York.

And U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, yesterday launched his own inquiry into the Bridge-gate scandal. He has requested documents from the Port Authority and has sent a letter urging the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to conduct a full investigation.

Weinberg and Wisniewski said their concerns with the Port Authority go far beyond the current scandal that has already forced the resignations of Gov. Chris Christie’s “eyes and ears” at the agency, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Interstate Projects Director James Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie’s who ordered the lane closures.

Both Wisniewski and Weinberg complained about a lack of transparency and responsiveness in the hefty toll increases pushed through last fall. They also cited a recent study commissioned by Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that found the Port Authority’s management to be “dysfunctional.”

Asking Congress to Take a Look

“We are preparing a resolution asking Congress to take a broad look at the structure and governance of the Port Authority. Because it is a bistate agency, it was Congress that had to authorize it and create it, and it will probably take congressional action to change the compact,” said Weinberg. She added that she hoped that the resolution would win final passage before the current legislative session ends on January 13.

Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee also is facing a January 13 deadline when its subpoena powers would expire. He is awaiting responses by the end of the week to the subpoenas he issued to seven Port Authority officials for all emails and correspondence related to the Bridge-gate scandal, including any correspondence with Christie or members of his administration, before issuing further subpoenas for witnesses to appear before his panel in early January. The Democratic-controlled Assembly is likely to quickly renew the Wisniewski committee’s subpoena powers.

Wisniewski, the Legislature’s leading transportation expert, said he is concerned not only about what his committee now knows about abuses of power at the Port Authority, but even more by what it doesn’t know.

“The long-term decline in quality at the Port Authority has been exacerbated by the rise in an anything-goes political mentality,” Wisniewski said. “When you think about what the publicly stated rationale was for the lane diversion -- that it was done to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse a governor who was already going to win reelection in a walk -- you have to ask what these guys would have done in a case that did matter.”

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