By David Cruz
If you were Chris Christie you might want to stay as far away from the Port Authority as you could, too. While the bi-state agency has been the source of cash for the governor’s pet projects and a home for his political cronies, it’s also been a place where his political hopes were dashed after the GWB scandal. But as the New Jersey governor’s influence has waned, New York’s governor — Andrew Cuomo — appears ready to fill the void, proposing reforms at the Port Authority that would give him substantial new power over New York’s interests there.
“Obviously, Gov. Cuomo is stepping into the vacuum at the Port Authority that’s created by Chris Christie apparently just not being interested,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
Cuomo, who was a much more silent partner during the David Wildstein, Bill Baroni, David Samson days has moved within the last month to give himself unilateral power over appointments and dismissals of New York Port Authority commissioners, and, as he told a New York audience recently, “create a new inspector general for the Port Authority of New York. The Port Authority went through a terrible scandal called Bridgegate. Since Bridgegate, we adopted no ethics reforms. Why? Because the state passed one bill, New Jersey passed another bill. The bills are different, so no reforms have been done, and the Port Authority needs reforms desperately.”
Actually both legislatures did pass identical reform bills that Cuomo (and Christie) vetoed but many observers are seeing Cuomo’s move as a way to guarantee that projects he likes, like the JFK overhaul and the LaGuardia rail link, get the funds they need. Having his own inspector general — no matter that the the PA already has one — would give Cuomo the ability to sic his hand-picked watchdog on any New York commissioner who dare to question those projects, as commissioner Ken Lipper did recently when he called the link from LaGuardia to Willets Point in Queens “amongst the most ill-conceived projects that I’ve experienced in government.”
Jameson Doig, who wrote a book on the Port Authority, said Cuomo could have his inspector general request emails, phone records and other information from any New York commissioner he doesn’t like or trust.
“Those are the kinds of activities an inspector general would normally do if there was some suspicion of ethical misbehavior or illegal action,” he noted. “Of course, the inspector general, if Cuomo pressed him to do it, could also simply assume that there might be such illegal action without any evidence in order to put pressure on the commissioners.”
Or, even the chairman, John Degnan, a Jersey appointee and a strong voice for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal. Degnan has already had to beat back unfounded conflict of interest allegations from Cuomo allies.
“The Port Authority has moved hundreds, thousands of miles towards reform because of John Degnan,” Weinberg said. “[Cuomo] wants to do this in order to, what, have some sort of secret police, to go after people he doesn’t approve of?”
Cuomo has backed off some, agreeing to replace commissioners without Senate approval only when the Senate is out of session. But his New York inspector general proposal, stays. Of course, Cuomo could just veto any Port Authority decision he doesn’t like. It’s a powerful prerogative he possesses regardless of how many inspectors general there.