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Combative Degnan Wins Senate OK To Chair Port Authority

Veteran troubleshooter questioned on level of independence from Christie in wake of role on judicial, school violence commissions

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

John Degnan, the former Democratic attorney-general whom Gov. Chris Christie tapped to take over the chairmanship of the embattled Port Authority, told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing yesterday that he believed the politically motivated closure of George Washington Bridge was an “outrageous misuse of office.” Had he been in charge, he added, he would have fired those responsible.

But Degnan, who has served over the years in sensitive troubleshooting capacities for a succession of Democratic and Republican governors and Supreme Court chief justices, also said that he did not regard his new role of Port Authority chairman to be that of an independent reformer. Christie’s and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s power to veto any and all Port Authority actions meant that he would have to be accountable to both governors, Degnan noted.

With the Port Authority under investigation by six federal and state agencies and committees in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, the committee questioned Degnan for more than three hours on his views on the future role and restructuring of the Port Authority, the degree to which he would be independent of Christie, and how to empower Port Authority employees to stand up to improper political interference.

Degnan and George Laufenberg, administrative director of the New Jersey Carpenters Fund whom Christie nominated to fill another vacancy on the 12-member bistate board, both won approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday afternoon and were then confirmed by the full Senate.

Degnan will be elected chairman by his fellow commissioner at the next Port Authority board meeting, replacing David Samson, Christie’s former campaign counsel and top-level advisor who is the subject of several investigations into conflict-of-interest allegations. His role in suppressing public disclosure of the reasons behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures also is under investigation.

Degnan already has been serving on a six-member panel appointed by Christie and Cuomo to recommend Port Authority reforms. That panel issued its preliminary 60-day report last week, but Degnan frustrated Democrats with his reluctance to offer detailed responses to questions about key Port Authority issues.

In fact, yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee mirrored contentious Supreme Court hearings both in the intensity of the questions asked about Degnan’s background and in Degnan’s determination not to show his hand on issues he had not yet fully investigated.

Degnan said he personally did not believe the Port Authority should be dismantled into two separate state agencies -- an option Christie and Cuomo suggested was worth studying. But he said that the panel would look into whether the Port Authority’s role in the region’s economic development should be restricted or expanded, and “one of the options would be dissolution.”

He refused to commit to push to eliminate the $900 million in Port Authority funds that Christie and Cuomo put into a Regional Economic Development Bank to fund “political Christmas tree projects” in their respective states and put the money back into the agency’s capital budget to fund more-needed projects like the refurbishment of the dilapidated Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He said he had only learned about the set-asides the day before and noted that such a decision would require the approval of both Christie and Cuomo, as well as his fellow commissioners.

Degnan declined to agree with Democratic characterizations that the Port Authority suffered from “political over-management” and interference. But he did say that “if the lanes were closed as an act of political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee or any other individual and not as part of a legitimate traffic study -- and that seems to be validated by some of the evidence -- it's an outrageous misuse of office.”

He said he was “horrified as all right-minded people should be” by the lane closures, and added he would have fired those responsible and would have expected the support of both Christie and Cuomo if he had done so.

Degnan, who served as state attorney-general under Democratic Gov. Brendan T. Byrne from 1978 to 1981, said his first priority would be to implement ethics reforms that would provide an avenue for Port Authority staffers to object to abuses of power like Bridgegate without fear of political retribution -- a reference to testimony before the Assembly Transportation Committee by senior Port Authority staffers that they feared for their jobs if they objected to the lane closures. “I can’t think of an agency that is more challenged and more in need of reform than the Port Authority,” he said.

Degnan, who had previously maintained public silence in the two months since his nomination at Christie’s request, used his opening statement to angrily dispute allegations that his son’s appointment to positions as an assistant U.S. Attorney and as chairman of the State Commission on Investigation by Christie would impair his ability to be independent of the governor.

He also denied charges that he had provided “political cover” for Christie by agreeing to serve on a judicial advisory review board after the previous board resigned en masse to protest the governor's undermining of New Jersey’s 60-year tradition of judicial independence by deciding not to reappoint Supreme Court Associate Justice John Wallace because he wanted to replace liberal justices with conservatives.

Degnan said he would have reappointed both Wallace and Associate Justice Helen Hoens, a conservative Republican Christie also declined to reappoint, but said that the governor was within his rights to refuse to reappoint Wallace because of his disagreement with the justice’s vote on Abbott v. Burke school-funding issues.

Degnan also defended his work on a commission on school violence appointed by Christie in the wake of the Sandy Hill School shootings in Connecticut, noting that Christie endorsed many of the commission’s 50 recommendations.

“My record demonstrates my integrity and refusal to compromise my own ethics,” Degnan said, challenging legislators to ask the various Democratic and Republican governors and the three Supreme Court chief justices who had appointed him to serve on various commissions in the three decades after he lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1981 and joined the Chubb Insurance Company as a senior executive.

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