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Your Toll Money Is Being Wasted By The DRPA, Says NJ State Comptroller [AUDIO]

In a blistering 77-page audit, State Comptroller Matt Boxer says his team has uncovered ineffective  oversight and weak policies at the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) that has led to tollpayer dollars being repeatedly wasted or mismanaged.

Ben Franklin Bridge
Ben Franklin Bridge (Flickr User rowens27)

The report shows the DRPA gave itself such broad discretion and operated under such vague program guidelines that almost any conceivable action or expenditure could be deemed acceptable. The audit also finds that appropriate DRPA policies and procedures designed to safeguard against the waste of tollpayer funds were avoided or just ignored.

“In nearly every area we looked at, we found people who treated the DRPA like a personal ATM, from DRPA commissioners to private vendors to community organizations,”  says Boxer. “People with connections at the DRPA were quick to put their hand out when dealing with the agency, and they generally were not disappointed when they did.”

According to Boxer’s investigation over the past 10 years, more than $1.5 million in commissions gained through the placement of DRPA insurance policies was shared among insurance brokers in a series of ambiguous and non-transparent dealings. The commissions were shared regardless of whether the brokers actually performed any corresponding services for the DRPA.

A senior DRPA employee told Boxer’s investigators that she raised concerns about the commission sharing arrangement shortly after she was hired by the DRPA in 2008. The employee says she was called into a meeting with senior DRPA officials and was told not to get involved in the issue because it went “further above your head than you know.” In a 2010 e-mail to one of DRPA’s commissioners, the employee expressed her frustration, stating, “I have been beating this drum . . . and all I ever got was a closed door meeting where I was told ‘you don’t want to get in the middle of this’ like I was dealin’ w the F**** mob or somethin’.”

In 2003, according to the audit the DRPA, in an effort to promote bi-state parity,  directed its New Jersey-based insurance broker and its Pennsylvania-based broker to evenly  divide their DRPA insurance commission payments. This arrangement came to be known as the “true-up.” In accordance with this arrangement, the Pennsylvania-based Graham Company paid Willis of New Jersey more than $500,000 over the next six years. As a result, Willis received payments that did not correspond with actual brokerage services, while Graham performed services for reduced compensation.

The earliest available documentation relating to Willis’ selection is an e-mail from the chief executive officer of another insurance firm, Commerce Insurance Services (now known as Conner Strong & Buckelew), informing Willis that it would be appointed as DRPA’s co-broker of record. South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross is executive chairman at Conner Strong & Buckelew.

In 2004, the DRPA established a fund that donated toll money to social and civic causes. Boxer’s investigation found that the vast majority of this funding — for example, 79 percent in 2009 — went to organizations linked to DRPA officials or to organizations that provided a personal benefit to DRPA officials in exchange for the contribution.

$15,000 was paid for three separate galas that were co-chaired by a DRPA commissioner who requested and secured the DRPA funding for the events. The commissioner also sat on the board of directors of two of the organizations that received the funding. The galas, titled, for example, “Argentina-Night of Tango and Wine” and “A Night in Acapulco,” were held at posh locations in Philadelphia.

Two $5,000 payments was approved for annual “Get to Know Us” legislative weekends, at which toll funds were used to provide DRPA officials with access to Pennsylvania state legislators while attending Phillies games, a cocktail hour at the Penn’s Landing Festival Pier and a carriage ride historical tour.

Boxer says, “To state the obvious, commuters who pay to cross the Delaware River every day should  not have their toll money used for DRPA officials to enjoy a carriage ride through Philadelphia or  a ‘night of tango and wine.’”

In its response to the report, the DRPA noted that the agency is committed to implementing OSC’s recommendations. Boxer says the DRPA deserves credit because the agency recently has corrected or begun to correct a number of the deficiencies identified in the report and some of the programs associated with findings have been terminated.

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