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Transportation Experts Urge Bistate Blue-Ribbon Panel to Fix Port Authority

Port Authority Executive Director Bill Baroni and his top aide, David Wildstein, who personally supervised the lane closures, have resigned. Christie’s campaign manager Bill Stepien and Kelly were fired, and one of Kelly’s aides resigned last week. And yesterday, Port Authority police union leader Paul Nunziato, whose union members told stalled motorists to call the Fort Lee mayor to complain, told union members he was taking a temporary leave of absence because of the Bridgegate probe, the Cliffview Pilot reported.

Kelly and Stepien have a date in state Superior Court on March 11 to defend their right to invoke the Fifth Amendment and remain silent in refusing to provide evidence sought by the Joint Select Committee on Investigation.

It was that 12-member committee whose four Assembly Republican members -- Assemblywomen Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth) and Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) and Assemblymen Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris) and Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean) -- held a press conference in Trenton yesterday to say that recommendations for reforms at the Port Authority and other independent authorities should not wait until the conclusion of investigations by their committee, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and other entities.

“We will continue to diligently investigate the facts surrounding the Port Authority, but now is the time to be proactive and offer practical solutions,” Schepisi said. “These ideas provide the framework for comprehensive reforms that should govern our bistate authorities and agencies.”

One of the most important -- and politically charged -- recommendations that the four Assembly Republicans made was to make it a legal obligation for commissioners and employees to fulfill the mission of the authority.

Serving Two Masters

“It’s impossible to serve two masters. While it’s important that governors appoint members who share their vision, political appointees must understand they serve and are responsible to the public,” the four Assembly Republicans concluded in an observation that directly conflicts with the public statements of Wildstein and Port Authority Chairman David Samson that their mission was to represent the interests of the New Jersey governor on the bistate agency.

“We should require that all state’s authority board members have an explicit obligation to fulfill the mission of the authority itself -- not the people who appointed them or their own financial interests. We should require commissioners and top-level employees to sign oaths pledging that their fiduciary responsibility to the agency supersedes all other interest,” the Assembly Republicans wrote in what could be taken as a shot at Samson, who has come under fire repeatedly in recent weeks for alleged conflicts of interest in past Port Authority decisions benefiting clients represented by his law firm.

In a direct response to the Bridgegate traffic jams, the Republicans proposed that “abusing one’s authority to harm members of the public out of such motives as spite, revenge, retribution, intimidation, or personal and political gain should be a crime” punishable by up to 18 months in jail, a fine up to $10,000, and the loss of employment and all benefits.

Robins agreed that such actions should be a crime, but suggested that the punishment should be harsher -- up to five years in prison and up to a $100,000 fine -- as a deterrent. In any case, such actions already could be subject to official misconduct charges already punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The GOP legislators suggested the establishment of “truly independent monitors at all bistate agencies armed with subpoena and other investigative powers to review the agencies’ practices and make public their findings with regular reporting to the legislatures of both states,” while Robins said he would prefer to strengthen the Port Authority’s Office of the Inspector-General, citing the success of such offices in rooting out corruption and inefficiencies in the federal government.

The Assembly Republicans noted that “many authorities have developed a culture of arrogance, ignoring audits designed to improve their operations and losing taxpayers’ money and commuters’ tolls” -- a possible reference to the massive 2011 Port Authority toll hikes that the New York and New Jersey AAA chapters are challenging in court.

“The independent nature of bistate authorities has created a semi-secret fourth branch of government with little or no accountability while billions of public dollars are spent,” the GOP lawmakers wrote. “We should require the publication of detailed information on each authority’s contracting, debt, personnel, regulatory, and other activities on a website giving the public, the media and the Legislature real-time information.”

They urged that the sunshine laws of both New Jersey and New York apply to the Port Authority and other bistate agencies, and called for detailed financial disclosure. “Authority executives, commissioners, and political appointees should have their financial disclosure forms posted on-line,” McGuckin said. “The public should know up front what interests these decision-makers have without having to search for them. They should have nothing to hide and this information should be readily accessible.”

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