Conflicts of interest at the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) were taken to a new level at yesterday’s board meeting.
Ballard Spahr Law Firm partner John Estey was named the new chairman, and Robin Wiessmann, spouse of Ken Jarin, another Ballard partner who often serves as Pennsylvania counsel to the DRPA, was placed back on the board after a brief hiatus. Both board members vote to receive and approve substantial legal bills from Ballard Spahr.
Mr. Estey, former chief of staff to Gov. Ed Rendell, has served as chairman-designate for the vast majority of board meetings, voting on behalf of the governor.
Ms. Wiessmann, a former Rendell appointee, returned to the board after serving for two years in 2007 and 2008 in an ex-officio capacity as Pennsylvania Treasurer. She replaces Pennsylvania State Rep. John M. Perzel, R-172nd, of Philadelphia, whose term had expired. Her husband, Mr. Jarin, often serves as DRPA outside counsel and occasionally chairs board meetings. He is a personal confidante to, and fundraiser for, the governor and has contributed $90,000 to Mr. Rendell’s campaigns.
"There are many challenges facing us in this volatile economic climate, and keeping the Philadelphia region’s bridges and transit operating efficiently and effectively is an important step in moving our economy forward," Ms. Wiessmann said. "I look forward to assisting the commissioners and staff and the opportunity to provide added value, when possible, to its operations."
Many political observers believe Ms. Wiessmann is positioning herself for a lieutenant gubernatorial campaign next year.
The Port Authority’s economic situation is bleak. Its debt stands at $1.2 billion, and 76 percent of every dollar must be spent on salaries, benefits and debt service. Tolls were raised 33 percent last year and will rise another dollar next year. The authority will be issuing additional bonds, possibly in excess of $1 billion, to fund capital improvement projects.
The authority’s spending of $400 million in controversial "economic development" projects since 1999, most of which have nothing to do with the maintenance and operation of the bridges, is a major factor in the DRPA’s fiscal crisis.
Matthew Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, said a clear conflict of interest on the new board appointees exists.
"Are we really supposed to believe that these politically connected folks are the only people available for Gov. Rendell to pick? Why not protect the public interest and appoint people without any conflicts of self interest?" Mr. Brouillette asked.
The Ballard Spahr Conflict
Mr. Estey said the authority’s planned changes in the coming months should set aside any public concerns over authority members’ connection to Ballard. In particular, he said, DRPA will institute a request-for-proposal process to ensure that it contracts services out to the lowest appropriate bidder.
"There will be a process for selecting lawyers going forward," he said.
As a result, he said, Ballard might not continue to serve as the authority’s Pennsylvania counsel. He also said the new contracting policy has been in the making prior to his becoming chairman.
State Rep. Doug Reichley, R-134th, who represents the Lehigh Valley, took issue with the governor’s appointments.
"In the waning days of the Rendell administration, the governor is going to do everything he can to place his friends and associates in influential positions, so that his legacy continues after he has left office," he said. "Appointing John Estey and Robin Wiessmann to the DRPA board is a clear conflict of interest, but that doesn’t seem to bother the governor’s conscience at all."
The Ballard law firm has reaped millions in no-bid contracts from DRPA since Democratic Gov. Rendell was elected in 2002. Mr. Rendell worked at the firm prior to becoming governor.
After Mr. Rendell assumed office, he appointed himself chairman of the authority. In the three years preceding his election, Ballard received $25,000 in legal fees from the Port Authority, including only $480 in 2001.
From 2002 until the present, Ballard has received more than $3 million.
Ballard, a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP), contributed $481,000 to Gov. Rendell’s campaigns. Ballard attorneys have contributed nearly another half-million dollars to the governor.
The Philadelphia Future Political Action Committee, registered at the Ballard Spahr offices, contributed $471,000 to Mr. Rendell. The PAC’s treasurer is David Cohen, former chief of staff under then-Mayor Rendell, former chairman of Ballard Spahr and the current executive vice president of Comcast Corporation. Mr. Cohen contributed $80,000 to the governor, and his wife, Rhonda, contributed $156,000 to Rendell campaigns.
According to Pennsylvania Department of State campaign filings, the address of Gov. Rendell’s campaign treasurer is the 51st Floor of 1735 Market St. in Philadelphia. Ballard Spahr occupies the entire floor.
When asked if Mr. Rendell thought a conflict of interest existed when Mr. Estey and Ms. Wiessmann vote to receive and accept substantial DRPA legal bills from Ballard, Mr. Rendell’s press secretary sought the governor for an answer. As of press time, no response was received.
Philadelphia lawyer and conservative activist Wally Zimolong said he was "appalled" with the selection of the governor’s appointments to the board.
"It’s not just a conflict, it’s an outrage," he said. "Gov. Rendell is taking money from our pockets to line the pockets of his lawyer cronies. Just remember that part of the $4 toll you’ll pay coming home from the Shore this weekend is going to enrich Ed Rendell’s old law firm."