Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Scrutiny on Pa's Rules of Ethics

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Scrutiny on Pa's Rules of Ethics

Article excerpt

Port Authority commissioners -- many of them affiliated with powerful law firms, Wall Street banks and labor unions -- debated the need for new rules on Wednesday that would restrict them from participating in agency decisions that could indirectly benefit them or their associates.

The heated and sometimes personal discussion played out as the agency's former chairman, David Samson, waged a court battle to stifle an outside investigation into votes he cast while leading the Port Authority that appeared to benefit his law firm. Samson resigned amid controversy in March.

Samson filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Newark on behalf of himself and his West Orange law firm that argues New Jersey's state ethics commission doesn't have the authority to investigate any Port Authority commissioner because the commissioners are not bound by state ethics laws -- only the internal Port Authority rules that the board discussed on Wednesday.

Those rules allow commissioners to decide on their own whether they have a conflict of interest and whether to recuse themselves from a vote.

"I think we've seen this can work to the detriment of a commissioner when people look back and say, 'No, your judgment was bad.' And it raises questions of conflict in the public," said New York Commissioner Kenneth Lipper, the chairman of an investment bank, who is pushing for a policy that sets firm standards for required recusals.

But New Jersey Commissioner David Steiner, the owner of a real estate company who has faced his own conflict of interest questions, said it would be "ridiculous" to require recusals when a commissioner has an insignificant personal connection to a matter -- for example, owning a small amount of stock in a company that is involved in agency business.

"I'm not going to decide something for [a company] if I have two shares," he said. "I think we're doing ourselves a big disservice by recusing some of the best minds we have."

Lipper cautioned: "I've seen careers destroyed of great public servants."

"Yes, right here in this agency," Steiner interjected.

Federal probe

The lawsuit and the debate over the recusal policy came as federal prosecutors continue a grand jury investigation into several Port Authority issues, including the George Washington Bridge lane closures and Samson's apparent conflicts of interest. It also comes as New Jersey and New York legislators call for reforms at the bi- state agency and as both governors decide whether to sign bills that would impose outside ethical standards on the agency.

The New Jersey Ethics Commission investigation began after a complaint was filed in March by the liberal watchdog group, New Jersey Working Families Alliance, alleging that Samson committed "various violations" of the state's laws and regulations regarding conflicts of interest.

Samson came under fire for voting on a $256 million new PATH station in Harrison three months after a builder represented by his firm proposed converting a nearby warehouse into hundreds of luxury apartments. Records also showed that he voted to reduce a yearly lease payment from more than $900,000 to $1 for a park-and-ride lot in a deal with NJ Transit. …

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