TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) —New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put forth a former state attorney general Tuesday to be the next chairman of the embattled agency at the center of the traffic jams scandal that has clouded the Republican governor’s political future.
At a news conference, Christie announced he nominated John Degnan, a registered Democrat who served as attorney general from 1978 to 1981, to replace David Samson, who resigned last month as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“I wanted someone with unquestioned credentials, both politically — from a partisan perspective — and from most importantly, the issue of integrity,” Christie told reporters, including CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer and WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond.
The Port Authority has been the focus of heightened scrutiny in recent months as details have emerged about the closings of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge as part of a political payback plot by Christie loyalists. The closings led to massive traffic jams for days in the town of Fort Lee.
Last week, a special internal oversight committee at the agency heard recommendations from academics and public policy experts on how to reform an agency that was branded “challenged and dysfunctional” in a 2012 audit and has seen its approval ratings sink even lower since then as the scandal has emerged, in addition to allegations of conflicts of interest in the awarding of contracts and criminal investigations on both sides of the Hudson River.
“Much has been written about what is needed at the Port Authority, and much of it sounds reasonable,” Degnan, 69, said Tuesday. “But that is from the outside looking in.
“I have the governor’s mandate to be independent and open-minded about the task. There is a lot of work ahead of us,” he added.
The bridge scandal forced the resignations late last year of deputy executive director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee, and director of interstate capital projects David Wildstein, a Christie acquaintance from high school. Emails have portrayed Wildstein as the orchestrator of the lane closings, while Baroni told lawmakers the lane closings were part of a traffic study for which no documentary evidence has been produced.
Samson was also the focus of questions about a $1-a-year lease extension for a park-and-ride lot operated by New Jersey Transit, a client of Samson’s law firm. The Port Authority said Samson recused himself, but his vote was recorded incorrectly. This month, executive director Pat Foye said the agency had rescinded the contract and would seek to renegotiate it. In addition, the mayor of Hoboken has accused the Christie administration of pressuring her to approve a development project with ties to Samson’s law firm in exchange for the city receiving Superstorm Sandy aid.
The lane closures are being investigated in New Jersey by both lawmakers and the U.S. attorney’s office. The Manhattan district attorney’s office has subpoenaed Port Authority records from the World Trade Center rebuilding and other projects.
Discussion over the very nature of the Port Authority and its mission has intensified recently. A rare public debate at this month’s board meeting revealed a deep split among board members over whether the agency should commit more than $1 billion to guarantee a loan for developer Larry Silverstein to complete 3 World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
The bi-state agency oversees bridges, tunnels, airports and seaports, as well as the World Trade Center site and Port Authority Bus Terminal.
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