PoliticoNew Jersey- Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be given vast new power over the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, including the authority to unilaterally remove and appoint commissioners, under draft legislation that has been privately circulating among Albany lawmakers this week and was obtained by POLITICO.
Under the proposal — just one piece of a larger ethics measure — New York's six appointees on the board of the massive, bi-state agency would serve at the pleasure of Cuomo or his successors. The governor could remove any New York appointees "at his or her discretion without the advice or consent of the [S]enate,” something now required, and then could fill those vacancies "whether the [S]enate is or is not in session.”
Beyond that, the draft legislation would create a new inspector general, appointed by the governor, to focus solely on New York issues at the agency. The inspector general would also be designated a “district attorney” under New York state law, even though the Port Authority already has an inspector general who can be cross-deputized by U.S. attorney's offices and by district attorneys to act as a law enforcement officer.
The proposal is dated Sunday and was still a topic of heated discussion on Wednesday. By evening, though, Cuomo's office said it was no longer interested in the appointments changes, with spokesman Rich Azzopardi emailing just before 9 p.m. — five hours after POLITICO first inquired — to say the draft was "bad information."
But the proposal, after circulating for days, had some agency observers warning about lasting consequences.
"The bill that Gov. Cuomo is attempting to get through his state Legislature on fast-track — no hearings and no public discussion — shows Cuomo at his worst: Unable to persuade the bi-state Port Authority to do his bidding, he now hopes to strip it of independent action, crippling its ability to carry out its major functions, and turning it into an extension of the governor’s office,” said Jameson Doig, author of Empire on the Hudson, the authoritative history of the Port Authority.
The proposal appears to be part of a larger bill that would change oversight of New York’s procurement laws. Cuomo, who is pushing the measure in the wake of a bid-rigging and bribery scandal that ensnared several members of his inner circle, as well as in the aftermath of the Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey, wants the legislation to be considered in a special session before year’s end, in which lawmakers would also give themselves a pay raise.
Specific details about the salary increases and the package of “people’s business,” which Cuomo and legislative leaders say are the topic of private discussions, have not emerged. On Wednesday, Cuomo suggested any bills acted on in a special session would be negotiated before rank-and-file lawmakers return to the Capitol and then voted upon soon after finalized text is made public. It’s still unclear when — or whether — the special session will take place.
“I spoke to both leaders this morning and everyone is working to get it done,” Cuomo told reporters in Manhattan on Wednesday, also dismissing concerns about transparency because “these are actually fairly straightforward issues. These are not complicated bills.”
Legislative leaders in Albany did not respond to requests for comment about the Port Authority legislation.
Cuomo's office was dismissive Wednesday evening, saying "it is common course to have multiple suggestions for bill language from various sources."
"We have no interest in the Port Authority appointments process, but there has been significant corruption and abuse at the Port Authority and it is undeniable that a reform such as an Inspector General would be well advised," Azzopardi, the Cuomo spokesman, said in his email.
The measure has already raised red flags among New Jersey officials and others who believe Cuomo is trying to grow his influence over the agency in the vacuum left by the disinterest of Gov. Chris Christie.
New Jersey state Sen. Bob Gordon, chairman of a powerful oversight committee that has looked closely at the Port Authority after the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, said he was aghast to learn what changes are included in the draft legislation.
“It’s an obvious assault on the independence of the New York commissioners,” Gordon said. “I’d call it a frontal assault.”
Last month, Cuomo asked some of his New York commissioners to boycott the Port Authority's public board meeting in protest of the ongoing dispute with New Jersey over what to fund in the agency's 10-year capital plan. They declined his boycott request, and then proceeded to hold up the capital plan even after he had signed off.
Cuomo’s most recent vice chairman, Steve Cohen, resigned amid the maelstrom after an unusually short stint in the position.
The governor's wishes have also been frustrated at times by commissioner Ken Lipper, a financier and former deputy mayor, as with his alignment with the New Jersey side over demands for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, which would serve mostly New Jersey residents.
Lipper, whom Cuomo appointed, went a step further at the last board meeting, saying pet projects supported by Cuomo and Christie — a new AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport and a PATH train extension to Newark Liberty International Airport — are wasteful and should be eliminated.
“We've heard for so many years about the bridge to nowhere,” Lipper said during the public meeting. “These are rails that will serve no one.”
The legislation could also conceivably be used to target board chairman John Degnan, a Christie appointee with whom Cuomo has tangled recently over the bus terminal plans. The debate over that issue has become vicious at times, and included unsubstantiated accusations that Degnan had a conflict of interest as he pushed for money to build a new terminal. An ethics board in New Jersey concluded the allegations were baseless.
Degnan declined to comment about the bill on Wednesday evening.
The draft bill would allow the new inspector general to investigate complaints — from any source – of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, abuse or conflicts of interest “in any New York-related [P]ort [A]uthority conduct.” That would appear to include discussions of a new bus terminal.
Gordon, the New Jersey senator, said he thought the inspector general position was written in with Degnan in mind.
“To me, it looks like it’s the mechanism that Cuomo is looking for to weaken or remove Degnan,” the Democrat said. “I think it does more long-lasting damage to the integrity of the Port Authority. It gives the governor the power to just remove commissioners on a whim and replace them without the involvement of the Senate, as I read the proposed statute. And I have serious doubts about whether this is even legal, given the Port Authority is a bi-state agency.”
He added: “It seems to give governor Cuomo free rein.”