I do not understand why New Yorkers have been so quiet, even irrelevant, in the matter of the Port Authority of NY & NJ scandal that has rocked New Jersey - a scandal, might I add, that is only out front because of the persistence of local, then national, reporters. Without the journalists' probing, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would have gotten away with his bullying tactic of silencing any questions by mocking reporters, and the tentacles of abuse of power would have been able to grow, spread and ensnare more of everyday life in the Garden State.
Some have complained about the MSNBC "obsession" with the Christie scandal. But were it not for reporters like Steve Kornacki (who has journalistic roots in NJ and specifically, with the blog once produced by disgraced Port Authority executive David Wildstein) carrying out their primary function as a watchdog on power, and keeping the issue front and center, it would have simply faded away - especially as Democrats are so easily cowered by the charges they were just being "political."
Without MSNBC's incessant probing, would anyone have made the connection between "Bridgegate" - the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in the world in order to exact political retribution against the Fort Lee mayor - and the Port Authority Police Department? Kornacki's most recent reporting followed up on the slimmest of clues in a text message referring to "Chip" to find that a Lieutenant on the Port Authority Police, Chip Michaels, was actively engaged in the lane closures as they were happening.
Kornacki further disclosed the "you owe me" ties between Christie and the Port Authority Police - the only New Jersey union to endorse Christie for reelection - who make substantially more money that other New Jersey police, will be getting 500 more officers (to 2000) when Newark is 400 officers down because of budget constraints, and which was exempted from the brutal cuts in pension and health benefits that other police and fire departments were subjected to.
The ties that bind go back to Christie's early days and how he rose to power. It turns out that Port Authority Police Lt. Thomas "Chip" Michaels, who had been quoted in a loving endorsement of Christie's reelection, was personal friends with Christie (and is the brother of a powerful lobbyist, Jeffrey Michaels whose business has soared with Christie's ascendancy). Chip took David Wildstein on a tour to survey how the bridge traffic was brought to a standstill; in one email, Chip even recommended how to make the snarl "better" by changing the traffic pattern, and apparently wrote in a note that the "test" was supposed to go on for a month (he is the only one so far who is found to know that the plan was to keep this up for a month). And while commuters were stopped in their tracks for hours, fuming, NJ Port Authority Police told motorists they should vent their frustration on the Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, as if the mayor were responsible. Why would they do that? Where would they get the idea to do that?
This wasn't a hardball, politics-as-football event. People's lives and livelihood were put at risk (an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack died; a child was missing, and thousands of school kids were late for their first day of school, but, as Christie aide Bridget Kelley said, they were children of Democratic candidate Barbara Buono voters.
Bridgegate didn't just impact Fort Lee residents or even New Jersey residents. It impacted New Yorkers, indeed, the entire region.
Where would New Jersey operatives get the idea they could act unilaterally like this?
Where was New York? It was the New York appointee, executive director Pat Foye, whose email on that Friday, the fifth day into the traffic snarl, ultimately brought the closures to an end (triggering an email that sounded threatening from the New Jersey politicos), and now Foye has asked for an investigation into Chip Michaels' activities. But why on earth did it take so long?
The Port Authority is one of the largest governmental bodies in the country, with an $8.2 billion operating and capital budget, and thousands of employees - and it operates virtually autonomously.
As the scandal widens, it calls into question how Port Authority's resources have been used, how it has become a dumping ground for Christie's political patronage and a piggy bank for his political aspirations.
We pay for that.
We also pay for the Port Authority "grants" for economic development projects in NJ that have nothing to do with the Port Authority, but were pushed by David Samson, Christie's appointee as chairman (more powerful that New York's appointee, the executive director Patrick Foye). Samson seems to be implicated in most of the nefarious deals and grants by virtue of his law firm's clients getting billions of dollars of business.
"As chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Samson voted to award millions of dollars in Port Authority contracts to a company whose owner is represented by Samson’s law firm in a hotly contested and lucrative legal fight," Jenna Portnoy of The Star-Ledger reported.
"In the three years since Samson took over at the bistate agency, the Paterson-based Railroad Construction Company Inc. has received nearly $16 million in work on projects ranging from the World Trade Center to the Hackensack River Bridge, according to a Star-Ledger review of meeting minutes and contracts listed on the Port Authority’s website. The most recent contract was awarded last month, according to the website.
"At the same time, two attorneys from Wolff & Samson are defending a part-owner of the company, Alfonso Daloisio, in a civil case set for trial in September.
"The review provides the clearest demonstration yet of how Samson’s role as chairman of the massive economic engine that is the Port Authority and his role as head of one of the state’s most powerful law firms placed him in potential conflicts of interest.
"It also shows a pattern in which Samson, a former state attorney general, represents clients on one hand and on the other votes in his role as chairman of the Port Authority on matters that benefit them."
Why isn't Governor Cuomo calling for Samson's removal?
Equally troubling, though, is that Christie has used funding to reward supporters and punish opponents - and award political patronage.
One of Samson's clients was the Rockefeller Group, at the heart of the controversy in Hoboken, where Mayor Dawn Zimmer is accusing the Christie administration of threatening to withhold Superstorm Sandy aid unless she fast-tracks approval of the development. And here's where Sandy and the Port Authority scandals converge: to advance that project, Samson pushed for the Port Authority to give a grant for a study in Hoboken for the project, even though it has nothing to do with the Port Authority.
Christie has used the Port Authority of NY and NJ for his personal piggybank and patronage. Why is it that New Jersey Port Authority Police - 500 of them - rather than New York Port Authority Police will be the ones to patrol the World Trade Center?
And why does New York stand for that?
At the Port Authority, Christie created a $150,020 job of director of interstate capital projects just for David Wildstein. Nobody could explain what Wildstein's function was, but apparently, Wildstein was supposed to use this position in order to be the Governor's "eyes and ears" (actually, it sounds like he was to monitor or direct where funding would go).
More recently Nicole Crifo, who until days ago was the assistant counsel overseeing authorities including the Port Authority at a salary of $110,000, and who was named in some of the Bridgegate emails, was just awarded a job at the Port Authority as chief of staff to Deb Gramiccioni, the deputy director (who replaced Bill Baroni, who was directly implicated in Bridgegate). at a salary of $184,366, a $74,000 raise.
New Yorkers pay for that.
The Port Authority is vital to economic development of our region and these escapades raise questions whether it is fulfilling its vital mission.
The proposed $4.4 billion 2014 capital budget calls for record investments in Port Authority facilities that will result in more than 23,800 total job years and more than $5.4 billion in economic activity for the region in 2014. That's not chump change.
The capital budget "will allow the agency’s signature projects to proceed on schedule, including the raising of the Bayonne Bridge roadway, the replacement of the Goethals Bridge, the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport’s Central Terminal Building, the replacement of the George Washington Bridge’s steel deck, the reconstruction of airport runways and taxiways and the redevelopment of Greenville Yards to accommodate efficient goods movement in the port. The budget includes $1.1 billion for state of good repair capital projects, which are key to maintaining the agency’s transportation assets. All state of good repair projects have been carefully evaluated as part of an exhaustive prioritization process conducted by the agency’s operating and engineering professionals," according to a Port Authority press release.
Infrastructure, and particularly mass transit, is vital to the economic prosperity and growth of our region - not to mention the implications for climate change and public health of tens of thousands of idling cars, stuck in traffic day in and day out.
But Christie in an earlier demonstration of abuse of power and political motivations, canceled the federal Access to the Region’s Core project (ARC), the 8.8-mile rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York City, tossing away $8 billion in federal funding, and then refusing to pay back American (and New Yorker) taxpayers for the $271 million the state had already taken expressly for that purpose. That's stealing.
"New Jersey commuters will continue to suffer workday delays, miss out on job opportunities and forgo $4 billion in personal income thanks to Governor Chris Christie’s decision to kill a rail tunnel to New York," a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation found.
“ARC was critical to the future of New Jersey’s economy and it took years to plan, but Governor Christie wiped it out with a campaign of public deception,” stated US Senator Frank Lautenberg, a champion of mass transit who had worked for this project for a decade, when the report was released in 2012. “The future of New Jersey’s commuters was sacrificed for the short-term political needs of the governor.”
“Current tunnel, bridge and rail infrastructure serving this corridor is already at or near capacity,” the GAO said in its introduction to the study. “This increase in travel demand, fueled by population growth in the region west of Manhattan and employment within Manhattan, could result in more congestion and greater delays for commuters.”
Christie canceled the program so he could redirect $4 billion into the state's highway fund and avoid breaking his campaign promise that he wouldn’t raise the state’s gasoline tax.
But to accomplish this, Christie effectively lied about the projected project cost and New Jersey's liability to pay: The project was estimated by the Federal Transportation Administration to cost as much as $12.4 billion, with New Jersey paying 14.4 percent (half the cost would have come from federal sources and the remainder from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority), according to the report. Christie had said state officials estimated the price could reach $14 billion, with New Jersey responsible for 70 percent of the total cost.
It is coming out now that this too, was fabricated by his cronies (henchmen).
This is how Christie rolls.
New Jersey and federal officials began planning for the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel in 1995, and work began in 2009. It was the largest U.S. mass-transit project when Christie canceled it, Bloomberg News' Elise Young and Esmé E. Deprez reported ("Christie Killing Tunnel Slows Commute, Costs Jobs, GAO Says," Apr 10, 2012)
“I abandoned the getting-everything-you-want thing a long time ago but I refuse to compromise my principles,” they quoted Christie saying during a speech in Manhattan, playing up that image of a hard-nosed principled leader. “When they want to build a tunnel to the basement of Macy’s and stick the New Jersey taxpayer with a bill of three to five billion over, no matter how much the administration yells and screams, you have to say no.”
The 8.8-mile (14.2-kilometer) conduit linking northern New Jersey suburbs and Manhattan was meant to double the number of commuter trains to New York during peak times. It would have reduced round-trip commutes by as much as 30 minutes, and boosted the value of homes near transit stations by $18 billion, according to the Regional Plan Association, a New York-based transit-advocacy group.
The ARC project also would have added flexibility during service interruptions, the GAO report said. Currently, one 15- minute train disruption in the existing tunnel can delay as many as 15 other trains, according to the report.
“New Jerseyans who commute into New York City already face near-daily struggles with an overburdened rail system and jammed highways, bridges and tunnels,” Lautenberg stated at the time. “We are at capacity, and our only hope for relief in this decade was ARC.”
The red meat right wingers laughed and thought this was very funny, a good example of "sticking it to Obama" - except that it is their tax money, too.
But as the investigations have unfolded, this is so much more than the Port Authority - it is apparent that has been a sweeping practice of political favors or retribution - even going back to Christie's days as the US Attorney (a job for which he was unqualified after spending two years as a lobbyist, and only got because he was a bundler for George w. Bush's election it is also obvious that he went after a smattering of Republicans, but focused on Democrats, and became the guy to be feared).
"Typically, U.S. attorneys appoint independent monitors, who often receive millions of dollars in fees paid by the companies. Justice officials were uncomfortable about seven agreements Christie signed, because he had appointed political supporters as monitors in some of the cases," Carol Morello and Carol D. Leonnig reported in the Washington Post.
"One group of cases drew particular attention. Five orthopedic makers were found to have paid what prosecutors characterized as kickbacks to surgeons who used their devices. The monitors chosen to oversee each company were all seen as close to Christie, including former state attorney general, David Samson, whom Christie later appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey...
"Another Christie-appointed monitor was Republican John Ashcroft, who as U.S. attorney general had been Christie's boss. The fees for Ashcroft's firm to oversee Zimmer Holdings were not cheap - an estimated $28 million to $52 million for 18 months of work."
Christie's handling of Superstorm Sandy (particularly this image of him as a man who would reach across the aisle for the good of his constituents because of his embrace of President Obama) was the biggest reason for his landslide reelection victory, which meant bringing the blue state's majority Democrats to his side.
I would contend, though, that Christie had his eye on billions of dollars which he could use as a slush fund to reward supporters and punish opponents.
He awarded a contract to administer $780 million in Sandy recovery aid to Hammerman and Gainer (HGI), a Louisiana firm which had already been cited for its failures in distributing Katrina aid, which would earn $68 million in fees.
"HGI won its contract last May shortly after its New Jersey law firm, Capehart Scatchard, made a $25,000 donation to the Republican Governors Association, which is now headed by Christie. The RGA contributed $1.7 million to Christie's re-election campaign," Matt Katz of New Jersey Public Radio, reported.
But the Christie administration secretly terminated that contract in December - as yet no explanation has been given - and paid $10.5 million as an "unpaid balance".
A second firm was similarly dismissed without any public notice.
Meanwhile, three-quarters of Sandy victims polled say the state has forgotten about them; they report frustration at having to apply, finding their paperwork lost, and having to apply over and over again. Many have been rejected for no reason.
Who has received Sandy aid? $4.8 million went to a luxury apartment building in New Brunswick, not affected by Sandy, but with investors including supporter NBA star Shaquille O'Neal (who did a Christie campaign commercial); and $6 million went to a senior housing project in Belleville, which was hardly impacted at all by the Superstorm (but that town's Democratic Mayor Raymond Kimble and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo had endorsed Christie during his landslide re-election).
So what does Christie do? In a town hall meeting last week - his first since reelection - he scapegoated the Obama Administration and FEMA as the culprits.
Well there would be a simple test: compare the New Jersey victims' experience with New Yorkers - yes, there has been frustration at the pace the money is getting to Sandy victims, but there isn't the same level of confusion and obstruction.
Jon Kaiman, the head of NY Rising who is responsible for overseeing the administration of federal Sandy aid on Long Island, says about $98 million in aid has been given out to homeowners. Altogether the NY Rising program will have of $750 million to administer.
Here is a key difference: Sandy Aid administration is happening through a government agency which is transparent and beholden to the people (Christie mocked a questioner at the town hall who asked why New Jersey privatized administration of Sandy relief).
In contrast to the confusion in New Jersey, New York has been clear who to contact and how to apply for Sandy aid and has a very helpful website (go to The Governor Cuomo's Office of Storm Recovery, call the Recovery Hotline 8:30am-4:30pm weekdays, 855-NYS-SANDY, (1-855-697-7263), or stormrecovery.ny.gov/ and you can apply online.
The corruption and mismanagement of the Port Authority robs all of us in the region - improving mass transportation is an essential ingredient to economic development and jobs creation; oppositely, when commuters sit in traffic longer, that means more greenhouse-causing, public-health damaging pollution being spewed into the air, and winds up costing commuters unnecessarily.
We are paying the price for Christie's political machinations and ruthless ambition, in the damage to confidence in government.
I recall how Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice saying why she threw the book at former North Hempstead Planning Commissioner David Wasserman, "greed and that corruption has crippled this department and decimated the trust these communities have in their public officials."
Incredibly, Republicans seem to be reveling in this tough-guy persona that Christie manifests. They don't see him as a crook or corrupt politician they see him as a "decisive leader" (?????) And the more inefficient government gets, the more it confirms their mythology about big government.
So it is important for Christie to be exposed for his self-serving, "people be damned" corrupt approach to politics. How he has functioned in New Jersey would be the template for abuse of power he would display if heaven forbid he ever did occupy the Oval Office. His sleazy manner, the way he sidesteps, is absolutely frightening.
One could easily imagine a Christie presidency - like the Bush/Rove presidency, where federal money (particularly from the Faith Based Community money) - would be funneled to effectively "buy" support and hurt opponents.
The lesson to be learned is that "government" is not inherently good or bad, but depends on who we elect to public office.
And it is a lesson in the role of local, state and national press that has been doggedly pursuing this story, exercising their Fourth Estate oversight responsibility.
We need more of it, but are getting less of it in this corporate dominated media industry which is the beneficiary of the billions of dollars of campaign advertising spending and also depends on the favor of officials to effectively overturn FCC protections of fair use of "public" airwaves. This way-too-cozy relationship between the media and big-money politicians could be the reason why the early reports about Bridgegate got no momentum before the election, enabling Christie to post that landslide reelection rather than the defeat a miserable record should have produced.
And they should next examine why New York has been a bystander in this scandal.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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