In a February, 2008 media report, Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) Vice Chairman Jeff Nash, also an elected Camden County Freeholder, ominously warned that "…the deck of the Walt Whitman (Bridge) HAD a 50-year life span….We’re at 50 years, two months."
Two and a half years later, the decking project of the Walt Whitman has not yet begun. Why? Lack of money, we are told, which is in part why the Port Authority just went further into debt by borrowing $320 million.
Of course, as with all things DRPA, that’s not the whole story.
The money was there. They just chose to ignore the bridges, instead channeling huge bucks to perks and political patronage deals.
The DRPA has squandered nearly $400 million in so-called "economic development" projects that have nothing to do with the bridges, and now finds itself more than $1.5 billion in debt.
Due to intense media scrutiny, a series of reforms have been suggested by Ed Rendell, who, as Pennsylvania Governor, appoints the DRPA Chairman. After his election in 2002, Rendell appointed himself Chairman, and last year made his former Chief of Staff and longtime political fundraiser and confidante John Estey —a partner at Ballard Spahr, the Governor’s former firm — the Chairman.
The reforms, while noteworthy, do not resolve the immense conflicts of interest which have gone unchecked for years and still permeate the entire Authority.
Like the fox being given oversight to "guard" the henhouse, Rendell and the DRPA audaciously expect the forgotten tollpayers — on whose back the DRPA has trodden — to believe that the reforms will be effectively implemented by the very people who are knee deep in all the conflicts.
For an example, let’s look at a conflict involving Vice Chairman Nash.
In 2008, the DRPA signed a contract with Live Nation, the largest live entertainment company in the world, for marketing and advertising. Significantly, the amount was exactly $50,000. In 2009, two more contracts were signed, both for $25,000. And in 2010, services have been provided and payment is pending, for a contract in the amount of an additional $50,000.
It just so happens that Nash’s wife, Jodi, is the Director of Sales and Sponsorship at Live Nation, Inc. in Camden.
Freindly Fire spoke with Nash about the contract, who stated the purpose was to help alleviate traffic congestion at the Susquehanna Center. DRPA’s advertising dollars marketed the Authority’s PATCO trains and River Link Ferry as means of transportation to and from the Center.
It must be questioned why DRPA is involved in that issue in the first place. By definition, for anyone using the Ferry, and for many using PATCO, they have to pay a toll one way or another: bridge, train or boat. No matter which option, DRPA gets its money, without having to spend $150,000 with the billion-dollar, publicly-traded Live Nation that employs Nash’s spouse.
What is particularly irritating to tollpayers, who will soon pay $5 to cross the bridges, is seeing Nash now clothe himself in the garments of a reformer. He recently stated how appalled he was that conflicts and nepotism exist at the Authority.
Why the new-found piety, since the conflicts have been so prevalent for years, such as DRPA Chairman and Ballard Spahr partner Estey voting on his own legal bills? (See Freindly Fire’s Philly Post column of July 21).
Is it because the DRPA just got caught with its hand in the cookie-jar and is under the microscope? Is this now a full-blown "cover-your-derriere" strategy to make the scrutiny disappear?
Not a bad assumption.
Why Is A Monopoly Advertising?
Let’s call a spade a spade.
DRPA is a monopoly. By their nature, monopolies don’t have the need to market or advertise. Since there is no competition, there’s never a need to wine and dine clients, nor does it have to worry about pitching business proposals.
The Authority’s guaranteed revenue source — we the tollpayers — precludes it from needing perks often found in the private sector.
Therefore, questions come to mind regarding the Live Nation contracts:
1) Why are DRPA’s executives engaging in business dealings with companies that employ Port Authority family members in executive positions? Did Jodi Nash receive any commissions or financial benefit from the contracts?
2)Expenditures over $100,000 need Board approval; those from $50,001 to $100,000 need the signature of the CEO, Chairman and Vice Chairman, and any $50,000 and under need only CEO John Matheussen’s approval.
Based on the DRPA’s record of stonewalling and lack of openness, is it just coincidence that all of the contracts from 2008-1010 are UNDER $50,001?
Put another way, if the contacts were $1 dollar more, Nash would have been required to sign off with his approval. It defies belief that that Mr. Nash didn’t know of the Live Nation contracts, not just because he is the Vice Chairman, but because his wife would almost certainly be aware of the transactions.
Were the just-under-the-threshold contracts designed to fly under the radar? Given the Authority’s history, one could certainly make that case.
3) Why is the DRPA pumping advertising and marketing dollars into an entertainment company’s coffers when it is mired in staggering debt —nearly 80 cents of every dollar is allocated to salary, benefits and debt —, and the bridges are in disrepair and potentially unsafe? (The Authority has refused to release its safety inspection reports).
The DRPA seems more interested in stadiums than bridges.
Using economic development funds, it has donated toll payer monies to the Camden Riversharks’ baseball stadium (Campbell Field), the Chester soccer stadium (PPL Park), and Lincoln Financial Field.
This raises some interesting questions.
First, what do stadiums have to do with bridges and the safety of those who use them?
Second, why the generosity to multi-million dollar entertainment and sports complexes?
Freindly Fire has requested information as to whether the DRPA has received any tickets from any of the aforementioned stadiums and/or teams who play there.
If so, how many tickets were received from each entity, how were they allocated (specifically how they were distributed and by whom — CEO, Chairman and Vice Chairman—), and to whom were they given?
Also, have any DRPA executives used the tickets?
Nash Must Go
The Port Authority has come under intense fire recently for its outlandish executive perks and irresponsible management, all the while going deeper in debt and not properly maintaining the bridges.
While wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, the DRPA has written a primer on conflicts of interest. The latest such revelation is the funneling of DRPA dollars to the company that employs the Vice Chairman’s wife.
Mr. Nash, who must live in a house without mirrors, recently spoke out against conflicts and nepotism. To be precise, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "This is an opportunity to make changes at the Authority so there is more transparency, no suggestion of conflicts or nepotism or political dealing."
Exactly. And a good start is to show Mr. Nash, and his cronies, the door.
Governors Christie and Rendell, the ball’s in your court.
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. He can be reached at [email protected]