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Tom Corbett’s DRPA: Same Old Story?

Corbett’s DRPA: Same Old Story?

A changing of the guard occurred this week at the scandal-plagued Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), as Governor Corbett appointed himself the new Chairman, and replaced five Board Commissioners.

The law-and-order Corbett has pledged to clean up the Authority through openness and transparency, vowing to oversee an entity free of the conflicts that plagued the prior Board.  But his appointments — all political insiders — have left many wondering if anything has really changed.

As Chairman, the Governor sets the DRPA agenda, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he will live up to his promises.  That said, a look at the new Commissioners reveals that none are known as reformers or good-government advocates, and, in fact, raises new questions, such as whether the companies of Board members will be eligible to receive DRPA contracts.

Cumulatively, the backgrounds of the six new Board Commissioners feature four lawyers (including one who works for the same firm as Montgomery County GOP Chairman Bob Kerns and State Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty), a real estate executive, a former union vice president, an official from the scandal-plagued Street Administration, large dollar campaign donors to Corbett, a prominent GOP fundraiser, and former officials of a number of Philadelphia’s not-so-respected entities: the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Seaport Museum (which played a major role in the corruption trial of convicted ex-senator Vince Fumo). 
  
The new appointees to the board:

-William Sasso, board chairman at Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young law firm in Philadelphia. Sasso is a prominent Republican fund-raiser and was a co-chair of Corbett’s transition team. The Stradley firm contributed $173,000 to Corbett.  As an individual, Sasso donated $23,000 to Corbett’s attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns.

-Joanna Cruz, an attorney with Kerns, Pearlstine, Onorato & Hladik, the firm of Montgomery County GOP boss Bob Kerns and State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty. Kerns contributed $7,500 to Corbett.

-Joann Bell, an executive at Pugliese Associates, a lobbying and government relations firm. A former special-projects manager for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and former vice president of AFSCME District Council No. 47, she was also an economic-development coordinator in former Mayor John F. Street’s Administration. The Pugliese political action committee contributed $1,500 to Corbett.

-Walter D’Alessio, vice chairman of a real estate investment banking firm, and senior managing director of a real estate consulting group. A former chairman of the board of the Independence Seaport Museum, and former executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, he also served on Corbett’s transition team and donated $2,500 to the Governor.

-David Simon, senior vice president and general counsel for Jefferson Health System in Philadelphia. Former general counsel to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, he contributed $29,500 to Corbett’s campaigns and served on the Governor’s transition team.

On a similar note, Corbett appointed attorney Charles Kopp to serve as Chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.  Lawyers at Kopp’s firm, Cozen O’Connor, donated nearly $150,000 to the Governor’s campaigns.

Corbett’s consistency is being called into question.  Despite advocating fiscal discipline and adhering to the free market system, he supports the subsidized Philadelphia Shipyard bailout. Similarly, criticizing Rendell for his DRPA conflicts seems a bit hollow when the new Corbett Board has more than its share of cozy relationships with the political powerbrokers.

This is not to call into question the integrity of any new Board member, nor the Governor himself. All may turn out to be true reformers, smashing the DRPA’s Business As Usual reputation as a haven of political patronage and a piggy bank for the insiders.

But until bold action and aggressive leadership takes place, that’s an impossible sell to an extremely cynical public. Based on Corbett’s promises to right the ship, there was not just the hope but the expectation that he would appoint good-government reformers to the Port Authority. 

That didn’t happen. At all.

So what needs to be done to earn back the public’s trust? Here are four quick ways:

1)      Stop the 25 percent toll increase slated for July, and put commuters ahead of Wall Street bondholders and the DRPA itself. At Corbett’s first Board meeting this week, he said commuters should be able to use the bridges as “cheaply” as possible.  Well, stopping the back-breaking toll hike is the only way to accomplish that.  But if he waits any longer, that goal becomes almost unattainable, as there simply won’t be enough time to realize cost-savings which would offset the revenue generated by the toll increase. The clock is ticking.

2)      Fire CEO John Matheussen as well as most top executives. It’s bad enough Matheussen makes $50,000 more than either governor (and, up until investigative media reports aired, was enjoying a $17,000/year car allowance), but his reign has been one of catastrophic failure.  The DRPA debt substantially increased, economic development projects having nothing to do with the bridges continued unabated, conflicts ran rampant, and he kept the Board itself in the dark on numerous issues. He would have been fired years ago had he been in the private sector.

And while it’s technically true that he can’t be “fired” by either Corbett or Gov. Christie (a majority of Board members is necessary to do that, and the Jersey Boys have been reluctant to can their patronage king), there is no way on God’s green earth that Matheussen or the Jersey Board can withstand the pressure of two powerful governors, who each have an ace-in-the-hole.  It’s called the Bully Pulpit.  Time to use it.

3)      Slash costs across the board.  It is simply not necessary to have 900 employees with lavish salaries and benefits operating four bridges and a short rail line.

4)      Authorize a top to bottom forensic audit from a non-political firm. If no stone is left unturned, millions upon millions in savings will be realized.

Despite the Board meeting being a prime occasion to initiate such ideas, something else happened: absolutely nothing.

Corbett promised “a deep review before making any major changes” and stated his intention to get out of the economic development business. 

That’s not exactly going out on a limb, since economic development had already been stopped. And there’s no economic development money left anyway!

For Corbett to say it was too early to replace Matheussen or to make any other big changes because he needed more time to figure things out boggles the mind.  The Governor should have been up to speed already since he was Attorney General when criminal misconduct was being reported (which is why the New Jersey AG is conducting a criminal investigation).  As a gubernatorial candidate for over two years, he was well aware that the Pennsylvania governor picks the DRPA Chairman, and could not possibly have overlooked the comprehensive media coverage of the DRPA debacles.

Oh, wait.  The Governor doesn’t acknowledge the validity of those reports. “I don’t judge anything, no offense, by what you people put in newspapers and on TV,” he said after the meeting.

Does that mean Mike Joyce of the EZ Pass scandal was framed? Were all the investigative reports devoid of documented facts?  Did the DRPA agree to reforms for any other reason than the hard-hitting media coverage?

All of which gets back to the fact that the toll-paying public will have to wait at least another month to see action.  And their patience is growing thin.

A golden opportunity to win political capital is in danger of being lost by Corbett— mandatory if he is to successfully tackle the tough issues ahead (budget, pension reform, school choice, privatization of liquor).  The Governor doesn’t seem to understand how important reforming the DRPA has become to the Southeast, home to half the state’s population. His board appointees and the lack of bold leadership have sent the message that, as of now, nothing has changed.

And here’s the biggest irony.  In four months, when commuters and shore-bound drivers realize the toll is $5 (up from $4 now, and $3 two years ago), compounded by $5/gallon gas, whom will they blame? Here’s a hint: it won’t be Rendell, but the man in charge.

Despite changes to the DRPA over the last year, conflicts and corruption still exist.  Time will tell whether the Port Authority can earn back the public’s trust, but if a serious effort isn’t made by Governors Corbett and Christie to clean house, fire CEO Matheussen, and stop the impending 25 percent toll increase, that may just be… a bridge too far.

 

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

 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, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

 

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March 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm Comments (0)

Rendell’s Fast-Sinking Bailout: Build Ships With No Buyers

But Corbett Can Drop Anchor On Governor’s Taxpayer Boondoggle

In the movie Dave, Kevin Kline plays a presidential lookalike who finds himself running the country after the real President falls into a coma.  Convening a Cabinet meeting, this political novice uses common sense to expose the ludicrous mentality of the entrenched Business As Usual crowd.

Kline asks the Commerce Secretary about an ad campaign his Department has implemented to boost consumer confidence in the American auto industry.  “It’s designed to bolster individual confidence in a previous domestic automotive purchase,” the Secretary proudly explained.

Speechless at first, Kline fires back, “We’re spending millions for somebody to feel good about a car they already bought? I don’t want to tell an eight-year-old kid he’s gotta sleep in the street because we want people to feel better about their car. Do you want to tell him that?”  The shocked Secretary (finally) sees the light, and the program is eliminated.

Incredibly, that mentality isn’t limited to fictional Hollywood scripts, but is a large part of the way our governmental leaders operate. Look at what Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell is trying to pull off before he walks out of the Governor’s Mansion a few weeks from now.

Shortly before leaving office, Rendell authorized $42 million in taxpayer money to be sent to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA) to help bail out the sinking Aker Shipyard in Philadelphia.

The funding, we are told, would prevent Aker from going under, since it would be building two new tanker ships.  

Of course, there’s one small problem.

There are no buyers for the ships.  And the prospect of that changing course anytime soon is virtually nonexistent.

Thousands of ships worldwide are lying at anchor because of the global recession, idled indefinitely because the demand for shipping is dismally low.  It’s gotten so bad that some ship owners are even scrapping their vessels to eliminate harbor costs, receiving pennies on the dollar. But the remaining glut of vessels is still huge, depressing prices for the foreseeable future.

So, let’s be “Dave” for a second and get this straight.

Rendell wants to spend money — our money, since there’s no such thing as “state” money — to build ships…that no one is going to buy, ostensibly so some 1,000 workers can keep receiving a subsidized paycheck. And since there aren’t any buyers, the ships obviously wouldn’t be built-to-order, further devaluing them and making their eventual purchase all the more difficult.

Rendell may not care, but I certainly wouldn’t want to tell a mother that her child died in a bridge collapse that resulted from a lack of maintenance — because $42 million was spent on ghost ships instead of bridge repairs.

But what type of Rendell move would it be if he didn’t take care of his political pals and big-time fundraisers?

The Chairman of the PRPA is none other than John Estey, former Rendell Chief of Staff and a longtime partner at Ballard Spahr, the Guv’s old firm which has received the lion’s share of millions in no-bid legal contracts from the state.  And guess who the outside counsel of PRPA was?  Ballard Spahr.

This is the same John Estey who is also Chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), which is intricately linked to the PRPA, sending millions their way over the years.

The DRPA couldn’t dole out legal contracts fast enough to Ballard when it served as its outside counsel — over $3.2 million since Rendell was elected in 2002, up from $480 the year prior. And when Chairman Estey voted to approve those legal bills, he was, in fact, approving funds that went directly to Ballard — his own firm. 

Ballard and its associated entities, by the way,…..

Read the rest and post a comment at Phily Mag’s Philly Post:

http://blogs.phillymag.com/the_philly_post/2011/01/07/another-rendell-bailout-build-ships-with-no-buyers/

 

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com

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, whose column appears nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX.  He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com

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January 7, 2011 at 10:16 am Comments (0)