Manhattan DA Opens Probe Into Port Authority
By Shawn Boburg, The Record
HACKENSACK, N.J. — The Manhattan district attorney has launched a wide-ranging investigation into the Port Authority, issuing a subpoena for communications between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office and agency officials, a source familiar with the matter said Saturday.
The development signaled the opening of a new legal front in the controversy surrounding New Jersey’s beleaguered chief executive.
The subpoena, issued by the office of Cyrus Vance Jr. in March, requests the communications and other documents related to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, the Port Authority’s takeover of operations at the Atlantic City Airport and the diversion of $1.8 billion in Port Authority money for construction of New Jersey roads, the source said.
Investigators, who have already begun conducting interviews, are looking at potential conflicts of interest among commissioners and whether the Christie administration’s tapping of Port Authority funds to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway and other state-owned roads was legally authorized, a second person familiar with the investigation said.
The subpoena, served on the Port Authority, means a second law-enforcement agency, besides the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, is looking at controversies that have emerged or attracted scrutiny in the aftermath of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.
The office of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman was notified before Manhattan’s district attorney issued the subpoena and was not surprised by it, said a third source familiar with talks between the offices. It’s unclear if the two offices are conducting parallel investigations or are working in tandem.
The Manhattan prosecutors’ focus on the Pulaski Skyway follows a report in The Record last month that found Port Authority lawyers expressed concern in 2011 that diverting $1.8 billion from the agency to state roadway projects in New Jersey was not legal without approval from lawmakers in New York and New Jersey.
Christie administration officials, internal Port Authority documents show, pushed for the money anyway, requiring a creative and complex legal justification that agency attorneys privately called “questionable.” Agency lawyers declared that the roadways, all in Hudson and Essex counties, were access roads to the Port Authority’s Lincoln Tunnel, even though the roads are miles from the tunnel in Weehawken and do not directly connect to it.
Investigators in Manhattan have been looking at the Port Authority’s assertion in official statements to bondholders that the road projects, which involve the Pulaski Skyway, Route 139, Wittpenn Bridge and Portway New Road, were properly authorized, and investigating whether the move violated New York’s state securities or state income-tax laws, one of the sources said. All the roadways are owned by New Jersey.
The northbound lanes of the Pulaski Skyway were closed Saturday and will remain that way for two years during a project to rebuild the 3.5-mile span. The elevated roadway was built in the early 1930s to provide access to the Holland Tunnel and now suffers from serious structural problems.
Vance’s office is also interested in whether the Port Authority’s governor-appointed commissioners — many of whom are titans of private industry in engineering, real estate and law — have taken part in agency decisions that overlap with their private business interests, one source said.
A representative of Fishman’s office in New Jersey referred questions to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which did not respond to requests for comment through its spokeswoman. Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts declined to comment.
The subpoena appeared to be wide-ranging, leading one person familiar with its contents to call it “a fishing expedition.” All of the people who spoke about the investigation agreed to do so only on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Amid the increasing scrutiny on the Port Authority, at least one commissioner appears to be preparing to step down, one of the sources said.
New Jersey Commissioner Anthony Sartor, who has been dogged by conflict-of-interest controversies because he owns a large engineering company and has led a committee that oversees construction at the World Trade Center, was expected to resign shortly, the person said. Sartor, who has been on the board nearly 15 years, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has recused himself from nearly all World Trade Center votes in recent years.
New Jersey’s U.S. attorney has also issued a subpoena related to apparent conflicts involving former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who is a founder of a prominent law firm that represents clients who have done business with the authority.
The investigation by Vance’s office appears to be looking at other commissioners’ potential conflicts and how those are handled internally, as well. The subpoena requests documents related to several specific World Trade Center votes, including approvals related to the $4 billion transportation hub under construction at the site in downtown Manhattan.
“They’re looking at conflicts, conflict policies, how conflicts are tracked and how they’re reported,” one source said of investigators from Vance’s office. The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News reported Vance’s interest on Saturday.
Port Authority commissioners fill out financial-disclosure forms once a year and are responsible for updating them periodically. The agency’s legal department, led by Darrell Buchbinder, who also holds the title of chief ethics officer, uses those lists to notify commissioners when a matter might present a conflict, but the decision of whether to vote is left to individual commissioners.
Samson, who resigned last month, has drawn criticism for voting on matters that benefited clients of his law firm, Wolff & Samson. His firm served as bond counsel for the South Jersey Transportation Agency, which last year handed over operational control of the Atlantic City Airport to the Port Authority. Samson recused himself from that vote, but spoke favorably about the decision afterward in response to questions from reporters, WNYC radio reported.
A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment .
In addition to the new probe and the investigation by Fishman’s office, a panel of state legislators has also been looking into the lane closures and related matters.
A report commissioned by Christie and released late last month cleared the governor of any wrongdoing. It was widely criticized as a “whitewash” by Democrats and others who cited Christie’s ties to members of the team of attorneys that led the investigation.
Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr