BY TOM HESTER SR.
The Assembly Transportation Committee Wednesday approved legislation giving the panel the power to subpoena Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials but not before Bill Baroni, the authority’s deputy director charged Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the committee chairman, is attempting to “shakedown” the agency.
Baroni, a former state senator and a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, told The Star-Ledger he believes Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the state Democratic chairman, wants to question agency officials because political donors he favors did not receive special treatment.
“I have to tell you, this looks like a shakedown," Baroni told The Star-Ledger.
Wisniewski told The Star-Ledger Baroni is wrong, and accused him of trying to distract from the issues of patronage and financial waste at the Port Authority. The Transportation Committee moved to gain subpoena power after Port Authority officials repeatedly ignored requests to travel to Trenton to testify about how the bi-state agency handles its finances and its hiring practices.
"Mr. Baroni now needs to create a conspiracy theory as to why I would want to, as chairman of the committee, look into the Port Authority," Wisniewski told The Star-Ledger. Wisniewski has accused Republican Gov. Chris Christie of using the Port Authority as a patronage pit.
After the Transportation Committee vote to issue subpoenas, Wisniewski issued a statement regarding Baroni’s comments.
"I am outraged that the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, who makes nearly $300,000 a year from toll payers, would refer to having to answer questions about well-documented mismanagement at his agency as a ‘shakedown,’ Wisniewski said.
“No amount of political mudslinging will keep me from doing the job I was elected to do,” the Assemblyman said. “The Port Authority has to account to the public as to why it has approved 50 percent toll and fare hikes, misled the public about the justification for those hikes and been called a ‘challenged and dysfunctional organization suffering from a lack of consistent leadership’ by external auditors.
“Mr. Baroni's attack is a new low from the Chris Christie character assassination team, which has repeatedly shown that truth is an expendable commodity in pursuit of its vendetta against anyone willing to question its decisions or its management,” Wisniewski said. “Mr. Baroni's time would be better spent answering the legitimate questions I've posed regarding his agency and if he truly believes that he was involved in a shakedown, he should be having discussions with law enforcement rather than cavalierly making unsubstantiated charges in the press.”
Assemblyman John Amodeo (R-Atlantic), who is the ranking minority member on the Transportation Committee, said of the panel’s action, “Today’s approval granting subpoena powers to Chairman Wisniewski limits the input of the committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, and puts the focus on partisanship instead of objective fact-finding. This action takes the political aspect of this investigation to an even higher level and calls into question the impartiality of the investigation. Despite my efforts to keep the process as democratic as possible by amending the resolution to require committee approval of subpoenas, the Democrats proved they weren’t interested or concerned.
“Every reasonable effort must be made to obtain unbiased facts regarding the Port Authority,” Amodeo said. “ Giving subpoena power to someone who also serves as the state Democratic Party Chairman raises questions about the bias of this ‘special’ committee.”
Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth) said she opposes the subpoena legislation.
“The Port Authority needs to be transparent and accountable and Governors Christie and Cuomo’s ongoing comprehensive bipartisan, bi-state investigation of the Port Authority has already yielded results and we should let that review continue without interference,” Angelini said. “Today’s resolution empowers a redundant political expedition that will not improve the authority or lower tolls.”
Assemblyman Dave Rible (R-Monmouth) said, “It is difficult to believe that chairman Wisniewski and his Democratic colleagues on the committee see no conflict of interest issue by giving unilateral power to someone who also serves as the state Democratic Party chair. It is important that the Port Authority be held accountable, but that must take place under a fair-minded and objective process. The credibility of this committee and the entire General Assembly is called into question under these conditions.
“My suggestion that the chairman step aside during the course of the investigation, in order to insure that a fair examination can take place, was reasonable and appropriate,” Ribel said. “While the Democrats are comfortable giving such power to Assemblyman Wisniewski, I believe the authority given to the chairman provides an opportunity for tainting the process. Assemblyman Wisniewski’s conflict of interest cannot be ignored.”