In yet another unbelievable act of arrogance, the board of the Delaware River Port Authority last week rescinded a reform that had been pushed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The board’s action once again permitted free bridge trips for DRPA employees commuting to work.
Not unexpectedly, Christie vetoed that action, and the ensuing headlines made the Governor out to be a conquering hero — not altogether an untrue assessment.
Possibly wary of Christie’s wrath, the New Jersey Board members issued a mea culpa, saying that if they had the chance to vote again, they wouldn’t allow the free trips.
In fact, the Jersey Boys went so far as to state, "…we are prepared to move the remaining reforms proposed by the Governor, and in the future be ever cognizant of putting the interests of our customers first."
A nice gesture, if it is to be believed.
Unfortunately, based on the track record, that’s a stretch. Instead, it seems like the classic DRPA Two-Step: say one thing, but do another.
But we won’t have to wait long to find out how serious both Christie and the board are at reforming the DRPA, given the latest bombshell revelations which broke after last week’s board meeting.
In their classic style, the Authority’s Big Three — CEO John Matheussen, Chairman John Estey and Vice Chairman Jeff Nash — once again emphatically demonstrated that there are two sets of rules: one for themselves, and another for everybody else.
Veto notwithstanding, the major question still remains: will the Business As Usual leadership continue to rule the DRPA, or will Christie follow through on his promise to clean house?
* * *
Mike Joyce is the disgraced former Chief Public Safety Officer at the DRPA. He resigned after it was revealed that he gave another executive’s EZ PASS — with its 100 free trips — to his daughter so she could avoid tolls while commuting to private high school.
Just days after the July 27 resignation announcement, Estey told Fox 29 News, "Mike Joyce made a mistake and I think he paid the price for that mistake." In the same interview, Nash said, "…(Joyce) realized he took advantage of a situation that he should not have. He was under increasing fire, he was a director of public safety at a very high salary, (and) he needed to step away."
Well said, gentlemen!
And step away he did.
Of course, what the DRPA brain trust didn’t tell us was that Joyce’s resignation was effective TWO MONTHS into the future — "with a date in September," in the words of Estey.
Oh, and in addition to still collecting a paycheck (he was making $180,000), there’s one more thing.
He didn’t have to come to work.
That’s right. In the midst of the so-called "Era of Reform" at the DRPA, we had an executive collecting full pay while sitting at home — all completely sanctioned by Estey, Nash and Matheussen.
Estey’s laughable rationale? Joyce "was an officer of the board….he could only be removed by action of the board."
Wow. So in other words, an executive can resign, but until the board either accepts the resignation or terminates the position, he still gets paid for not showing up.
And we’re not talking chump change.
From July 27 to August 18, Joyce received almost $11,000. Had the board not eliminated his position at the August 18 meeting, and assuming Joyce would have been on the payroll through mid- September, he would have pocketed almost $25,000!
Yep. That’s the DRPA. Spare no expense, as long as it’s OPM — Other People’s Money.
Namely the tollpayers’.
* * *
The official Alcohol Policy of the DRPA mandates an "Alcohol-Free
Workplace," with the Port Authority having "a vital interest in maintaining an alcohol -free environment for its employees and the public."
Therefore, the DRPA "absolutely" prohibits "the use, possession, sale, distribution or being under the influence of alcohol while on Authority premises or while conducting Authority business."
Translation: if you’re an employee in possession of alcohol while on DRPA property, you’re history.
Unless, of course, you happen to be Port Authority leadership, where the rules don’t apply to you.
Leadership like… Jeff Nash.
You see, for years, Nash has been throwing lavish, open-bar soirees on the top floor of the DRPA building on New Year’s Eve to watch fireworks over the river.
It’s a practice, he says, that’s gone on "for generations."
Interesting how much DRPA history the Vice Chairman knows, but somehow, this big-time Cozen O’Connor lawyer and elected Camden County Freeholder wasn’t aware of the prominently displayed policy.
In his words, "If there is (a zero tolerance alcohol policy), I’m not aware of it."
Of course not.
Just as comical, though, is Estey’s response, in another FOX 29 interview:
"I do know that we have a zero tolerance policy."
But asked about his knowledge of Nash’s alcohol-fueled parties, he predictably said, "I didn’t know that. No….that’s interesting…I don’t know enough about the policy…but I’d like to go back and understand the policy before I come to any conclusions."
One has to question what this high-powered lawyer (Estey is a partner at Ballard Spahr — yes, that Ballard Spahr) intends to find after "investigating" a black and white alcohol policy.
So let’s make it simple for John:
There is a zero-tolerance policy at the DRPA. No means no. Therefore, any employees consuming alcohol at Nash’s parties are in violation of that policy.
As far as making a "conclusion" as to whether there were DRPA employees present, let’s turn to Mr. Nash for that answer. He said that the parties were, "…for people who were employees here or for executives."
Seems pretty clear cut.
And what of the mammoth liability that Nash placed on the taxpayers, since jury awards stemming from any accident related to a Nash-alcohol party could be astronomical?
Not to worry. It’s OPM!
But here’s the $64,000 question : What happens now?
Will Nash be asked to immediately vacate his position? Will executives in attendance be sanctioned or fired? And if so, will they still collect pay until their positions are eliminated — just like Mike?
* * *
Speaking of alcohol, it was revealed that the Port Authority also has a liquor license. According to a DRPA spokesman, the license was purchased for a business venture (that failed), but the Authority, "considers it a good business decision to keep the license."
Which makes sense, since the DRPA is involved in absolutely everything — except balancing its checkbook and safely maintaining four bridges and a short rail line.
So since 1999 — to the tune of $40,000 billed to the toll payers — the Port Authority has held a liquor license that it has never used.
About the only thing that could top that would have been Nash buying the alcohol for his parties — from the DRPA!
And what does our knowledgeable Chairman Estey say about the license: "That’s the first I’m hearing of that….it’s another interesting piece of information. Thank you." (You have to admit…this makes for great television.)
Questioned on whether he would push to sell the license, Estey wouldn’t say.
Since the third time’s the charm, let’s ask one more time.
Why won’t they immediately sell the license?
Because — altogether now — it’s Other People’s Money.
* * *
Despite monumental press coverage of the DRPA’s never-ending scandals, and elected officials from both sides of the river continuing to call for real reform, many are wondering how and why the current leadership is still in power.
It’s a fair question, since the ones who have been caught in the cookie jar — over and over — are the same ones now tasked with guarding the cookies.
That’s like putting the CEO of Enron in charge of reforming the company’s corporate abuses.
But somehow, despite its abysmal record, the DRPA’s leadership has been given a free pass.
So what can Christie do to clean up the DRPA once and for all?
Simple. Be Chris Christie.
The Governor needs to remember what brought him to power: the willingness to take on anybody and everybody who stands in the way of progress and fair play.
Few leaders have the courage to oppose the entrenched Business-As-Usual crowd, so when someone comes along with the guts to take action, he immediately wins the respect of the electorate.
So here’s a winning strategy to clean house:
1) Use his office as a bully pulpit and demand that the Board’s leadership be changed. Not in a month, and not in a week. Immediately. The list of Leadership’s failures is so long and compelling that the story sells itself.
2) Tell the Port Authority board that he intends to veto every single item it passes until the Big Three either resign or are removed.
3) Perhaps most important, Christie needs to get much more personally involved in reforming the Authority. He cannot mandate changes from afar, but must do so in a hands-on manner. That means attending the board meetings himself, asking the tough questions, and going on the offensive as only he can.
No one, not even the Big Three, can withstand the pressure Chris Christie can exert, should he choose to do so.
This is, perhaps, the defining moment for Chris Christie.
Will he finish what he promised to do, or will the DRPA simply wait him out, confident that they are the ones calling the shots?
The chess matched has resumed. And it’s Governor Christie’s move.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, "Freindly Fire," hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller "Catastrophe." Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX 29. He can be reached at [email protected]