It’s Time to Clean House at the DRPA

An open letter to Governor Christie

Governor Christie:

Political courage.

That is the description you have earned as governor.  And for good reason.

You have successfully confronted the most powerful special interests in the state, sending a message that there are no sacred cows. In doing so, to the pleasant surprise of millions, the entrenched “business as usual” crowd is finally on the run.

In that regard, I want to discuss what is perhaps the most patronage-laden and inefficient entity in the state — the Delaware River Port Authority.

As you are aware, the contract of Authority Chief Executive John Matheussen expired July 17. While he is still functioning month-to-month as the CEO, his future rests with you. [SIGNUP]

There has been much coverage devoted to the largesse of the DRPA, specifically the $400 million in “economic development” funds that were spent on everything under the sun — except the bridges — leading to massive debt and rising tolls.

In addition to the misuse of the people’s money, there are a number of other factors to consider when deciding whether Mr. Matheussen’s contract should be renewed by the Board and approved by you.

Following are several examples of John Matheussen’s failed leadership:

1) Permitted Immense Conflicts Of Interest

Without question, Matheussen’s greatest failing is his toleration of the unfettered conflicts of interest that permeate the DRPA Board.

Upon assuming office in 2002, Governor Rendell appointed himself chairman of the DRPA. One of the major beneficiaries has been his former firm, Ballard Spahr. In the three years preceding Rendell’s election, Ballard received $25,000 in legal fees from the Port Authority, including only $480 in 2001. From 2002 until the 2009, Ballard has received over $2.7 million.

Ballard, its attorneys and associated entities have contributed $1.5 million to Rendell’s campaigns.

Two of the governor’s former top aides, John Estey, his former chief of staff, and Adrian King, his former deputy chief of staff, are currently partners at Ballard, and both hold or have held influential positions related to DRPA.

Estey has chaired virtually every Board meeting since 2002, and Mr. King served as the Authority’s outside counsel. Mr. Estey and Mr. King are brothers-in-law, and together have contributed over $35,000 to Mr. Rendell’s political coffers.

Former Pennsylvania Treasurer Robin Wiessmann, who had been a Rendell appointee, sits on the DRPA Board. Her husband, Ken Jarin, also a partner at Ballard, served as DRPA outside counsel and occasionally chaired board meetings

Incomprehensibly, Matheussen never raised an eyebrow when Estey, King, Jarin, and Wiessmann voted to “accept and receive” Ballard’s legal bills to DRPA, since that action amounted to money going into their law firm’s pocket, and, ultimately their own.

As you know better than most, Governor, the toughest challenge of being a leader is to buck the crowd and do the right thing, no matter how difficult.  But instead of illustrating that trait, John Matheussen was an instrumental part of the go-along, get along crowd — to the detriment of all but the insiders

2) The Conflict Of DRPA Executive John Rogale

Matheussen was asked about a possible conflict of interest with one of his executives, John Rogale, the director of labor contract compliance.

According to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Rogale made a contribution in May 2006 in which his listed employer was the DRPA. However, for a contribution made several months later, the employer listed for Rogale was Remington and Vernick Engineering, of Haddonfield, N.J. It is one of the largest general engineering firms performing work for the DRPA.

Matheussen’s response? Two sentences: “DRPA can confirm that as of May 17, 2006 Mr. Rogale was employed at the DRPA. Mr. Rogale has informed DRPA that since his employment by DRPA on April 13, 2003 he has not been employed by any other employer.”

And with that non-answer, Matheussen stated his satisfaction that the case was closed.

Pressed further, Matheussen played coy, stating that he hadn’t seen any information that Rogale worked for Remington and Vernick. When confronted with the election document, he sidestepped the issue, instead suggesting that it could have been a mistake.

A mistake?

If Rogale’s employer had been NASA, that would be inaccurate. But when he lists a major DRPA vendor as an employer, that’s not just forgetting to dot an “i” or cross a “t”.

It’s just not believable that it was a simple mistake.

The absence of due diligence in investigating a possible situation where millions in DRPA contracts — the people’s money — may have been awarded unfairly reflects a disturbing lack of leadership from the CEO.

3) Contract Snatched Away From Non-Union Contractor

In 2009, the DRPA awarded a contract to a unionized construction firm, reversing an earlier recommendation from its operations committee. Despite repeated questions, Matheussen refused to explain the Authority’s decision.

John D. Lawrence Inc., a New Jersey all-union construction firm, was awarded a multimillion dollar contract to retrofit the authority’s headquarters.  However, C&C Construction Management, a Philadelphia firm that utilizes non-union labor, was a lower bidder and had been recommended by the DRPA’s operations and maintenance committee.

Freindly Fire questioned Matheussen as to why the board rejected the recommendation of the operations committee. His response: “The committee came back to the full board, and determined that the [John] Lawrence company was the lowest qualified bidder and not C&C Construction.”

Asked if he could explain the 180-degree change, Matheussen replied, “No, I cannot.”  Pressed as to what specific criteria C&C failed to meet, Matheussen declined to answer.

To add salt to the wound, the president of C & C Construction was notified that his firm lost the contract — by the media.

Is it just coincidence that the Port Authority’s board is laden with union representation? Maybe, but when Matheussen deliberately withholds answers, suspicion and cynicism only grow.

And based on his complete unwillingness to answer even the most basic questions on the matter, Matheussen sent a very chilling message to all cost-conscious non-union firms seeking business with the DRPA: “Good Luck.”

4) Bridges Are In Disrepair…Yet Funds Were Available

By the DRPA’s own admission, the Walt Whitman Bridge is several years past due for its re-decking project.  Why? Lack of funds.

And how is it that there is a money shortage?

Because the Port Authority squandered hundreds of millions on projects such as the soccer stadium, the Kimmel Center and the Barnes Foundation — all worthy projects but having absolutely nothing to do with the integrity of our bridges and the safety of those who use them.

As a result, it is $1.5 billion in debt, and more than 76 percent of its revenue is allocated to salaries, benefits and debt service. However, with nearly $40 million in economic development funds remaining, Matheussen and the Board chose to ignore the bridge’s infrastructure needs — despite the potential danger — and instead continued to spend money on non-bridge projects.

After stating, “Not to be picky, but it was closer to $350 or $375 million in economic development,” Matheussen refused to answer why the bridges the bridges continue to be ignored.

As a result, the people are once again victimized. To date, tolls have increased 33 percent under Matheussen, and another $1 increase has been authorized for next year.

So Matheussen’s track record: a 67 percent toll increase, hundreds of millions in additional debt, still no work on the Walt Whitman Bridge, and a total stonewalling of repeated requests to view bridge safety reports.

5) Tram To Nowhere

In December 2000, the DRPA started a tram project to carry passengers between Philadelphia and Camden.  The authority spent a considerable sum  — possibly as much as $17 million — on the project, including  building a tower in Pennsylvania and a concrete caisson in the river near Camden. A sign near the DRPA headquarters marks the future home of the tram, yet no action has occurred in years.

Despite millions expended on an unfinished project, Matheussen and his communications office stonewalled repeated media requests for basic information on the tram.  It took three months to receive a feasibility study — that had been completed 10 years prior. A second feasibility study was promised but never delivered.

The only responses managed by Matheussen’s office were vague, noncommittal answers, with one advising the media to check  “newspaper archives (which) contain many stories on this issue.”  Additionally, standard answers to information requests were “Request received,” “Request acknowledged” “Received your tram request.”

After four months of being told that answers to Freindly Fire’s request were being compiled, the Port Authority’s spokesman, who reports to Matheussen, stated that all requests needed to be sent via U.S. mail.

To date, years after the requests were made, virtually no accounting of the tram debacle has been forthcoming by Matheussen.

* * *

The attitude of John Matteussen, without question, smacks of arrogance and indiffernce: questions purposely avoided, conflicts of interest tolerated if not openly encouraged, and patronage trumping performance. Whatever credibility he may have had has been lost.  Whatever integrity there may have been at the DRPA has vanished.

In the real world, a tenure marked by this kind of abject failure would have come to an end.  But at the DRPA, such behavior has been traditionally rewarded with more job security.

Without question, the DRPA is a highly political creature.  Despite pressure to retain Matheussen, from officials such as State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, whose union leader brother serves on the Port Authority Board, I urge you to remain steadfast in holding the DRPA accountable.

Governor Christie, on behalf of millions of commuters and taxpayers thoroughly disgusted with the DRPA’s corruption, toll increases and incompetence, I urge you to clean house at the Port Authority and restore dignity to a once-respected entity.

And the best way to begin such a task is to cause the dismissal of John Matheussen.

CC: Gov. Edward Rendell

Tom Corbett, GOP Candidate For Governor

Dan Onorato, Democratic Candidate For Governor

Deborah Gramiccioni, Director Of The NJ Authorities Unit

Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau,  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