Port Authority Now Subject to Assembly Transportation Panel Subpoenas
The Assembly Transportation Committee now has the power to subpoena Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) officials following passage of a resolution by the full Assembly yesterday. A series of increasingly alarming reports in recent months have drawn sharp criticisms about how the multi-billion dollar agency conducts its business.
Concerns have been raised over overtime costs in excess of $90 million; contradicting statements about where the majority of the money raised by the agency's September toll hike was being spent; $4 million in Christie administration patronage hires; and borderline-ridiculous levels of perks for authority members and retirees.
The resolution is sponsored by Assembly Transportation Committee chairman John Wisniewski who says several weeks ago he invited Executive Director Patrick Foye, from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to come to the Transportation Committee and explain the transparency that the Port Authority has in general, but Foye did not show up.
"We've seen fares go up; we've seen tolls go up; we've seen an increase in their budget," says Wisniewski. "It's an agency that's taking public money in the form of tolls, in the form of fares, and it's using it and it's creating an empire. They appear to be answerable to nobody."
In September, tolls were increased at the Hudson River Crossings by $4.
Wisniewski says, "Our job as a transportation committee is to oversee transportation entities; independent authorities is part of our charge. When we can't get answers from one of the agencies that we are given the oversight on, we have no choice but to look at increasing our authority by having this committee endowed with subpoena power."
Former State senator and current PANYNJ deputy executive director Bill Baroni was asked recently to testify before the Senate Transportation Committee. He did show up and during his testimony he made it clear that it only takes one phone call to get him to provide any information he can to any committee that wants it. Governor Chris Christie agrees, but he also suspects that Wisniewski has an ulterior motive as well.
"I'm shocked that there's politics involved by the Democratic State chairman (Wisniewski) who doubles as the Assembly transportation chairman," says Christie. The Governor also says his administration is willing to give Wisniewski's committee information regarding PANYNJ, "And we always have been willing to do that, but I think this is just a show. They want to put on a show."
Christie thinks giving a legislative committee subpoena power sets a bad precedent. He explains, "It raises the stakes then. Everybody gets a little bit agitated when you start throwing subpoenas around. Take my word for it. I used to do it. People get very upset."
In joint statement, the Republican members of the Assembly Transportation Committee, John Amodeo, Scott Rudder and Dave Wolfe say, "It cannot go unrecognized in this context that the committee chair also serves in a high-profile partisan political position that calls motivation and partiality into question. Equally noteworthy is the committee chair's statement at a prior hearing on the Port Authority admitting that he and others had attempted to place friends and supporters in Port Authority jobs, but 'none of us have been successful' in doing so. This raises questions of whether there is any retaliatory motive to this focus on the Port Authority to the exclusion of other authorities."
"This step was made necessary by the Port Authority's sheer hubris and failure to respond to basic questions about its operations," says Wisniewski. "More and more the Port Authority is beginning to look like an out-of-control agency that has forgotten it exists to serve the public. It hid information on its painful toll increase, wastes money on overtime, stacks its payroll with political cronies, fails to respond to public records requests and tried to obfuscate it all by declining hearing invitations. It's time to get straight answers once and for all."
Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick says, "I believe this issue should be resolved through the bipartisan audit already being conducted by Governors Christie and Cuomo. A partisan, politically-motivated investigation led by the State Democratic Party Chairman sets a bad precedent. This resolution does not create the fair and objective review the public expects."