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Port Authority Creates Oversight Panel After Bridge Affair

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George Washington Bridge
Traffic moves across the George Washington Bridge between New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey on December 17, 2013. Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey formed an oversight committee to improve governance at the transportation agency, which is under scrutiny after an ally of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie closed lanes at the George Washington Bridge.

The agency’s chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, and its vice chairman also apologized to drivers for the inconvenience caused by the closings and for putting public safety at risk.

“We’re going to ensure what happened last September doesn’t happen again,” said Vice Chairman Scott Rechler, an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Rechler said the committee wouldn’t ignore state and federal investigations into September traffic jams at the foot of the bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, engineered by David Wildstein, an authority official charged with carrying out Christie’s agenda. Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor didn’t join others in his party in endorsing the Republican governor’s re-election.

The committee will review the effectiveness of the agency’s whistle-blower and recusal policies, said Rechler.

Traffic Problems

Two former Christie aides, deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and campaign manager Bill Stepien, have said they won’t comply with subpoenas issued by a New Jersey legislative panel investigating the imbroglio. Christie cut ties to Stepien and fired Kelly, who sent an Aug. 13 e-mail to Wildstein that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied: “Got it.”

Wildstein resigned from his post.

Samson, who isn’t a member of the oversight committee, was linked to the closings by e-mails obtained last month by news outlets. In one message, Wildstein told Kelly that Samson was “helping us to retaliate” for New York traffic officials’ easing of the jam on what would have been the fifth day.

Christie said Jan. 9 that he spoke to Samson for two hours and believed that he knew nothing about the issue. Samson hired attorney Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary and U.S. attorney in New Jersey, to represent him in the investigation.

Samson, who didn’t take questions, said today he “wholeheartedly” endorsed the oversight panel.

Developing Image

Samson said in a brief statement that he can’t allow the Port Authority to be “mischaracterized” by the actions of a few. While Samson said he wanted to comment more specifically, he deferred to the state and federal probes that are examining the closings.

“I trust that when the facts unfold and they will unfold, the public will have a complete picture,” Samson said.

Samson was state attorney general under Democrat James McGreevey. He was nominated to the board by Christie in 2010 and elected chairman in February 2011. In 2009, he was general counsel to Christie’s election campaign, and was chairman of his transition committee.

Margaret Donovan, co-founder of the Twin Towers Alliance, which advocates rebuilding World Trade Center buildings destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, said at the meeting that the special oversight committee was doomed to fail.

Donovan, a long-time critic of the agency, which owns the World Trade Center site, called on the 12 commissioners and top executives at the agency to resign and be replaced by independent career professionals. The Port Authority should also be subject to open records and meetings laws of New York and New Jersey, she said.

"Does anybody believe that political appointees will be able to reform that which political appointees have deformed?" said Donovan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Z. Braun in New York at mbraun6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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