- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The indictments against two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie and the guilty plea of a third, all stemming from the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal, and the still-looming investigation involving the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have underlined the need for reform at the agency.

David Samson wasn’t mentioned in the indictment that charged a former Port Authority official and a former Christie aide with several wire fraud and conspiracy counts on Friday, meaning the separate investigation stemming from his time as chairman could yield further embarrassment for the bistate authority.

But despite the scandals, its leadership is optimistic about the future.

Port Authority Chairman John Degnan, who is leading the agency through the turmoil, said there’s an opportunity to learn from the indictments, “if there’s anything we missed that we should do.”

“In the seeds of disaster were the potential for reform. I view the indictments as another step in the healing process, reformation process,” Degnan, who was appointed by Christie last year after Samson resigned, told The Associated Press last week.

After the release of the indictments Friday and the guilty plea of David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official and Christie ally who said he orchestrated the lane closings with the help of former Port Authority official Bill Baroni and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, Degnan stressed that the agency’s new whistleblower policy is “one of the most aggressive in the country.”

Degnan said it supports employees who come forward if they see any potential violations, a policy he said could have avoided the lane-closing scandal since some employees likely were afraid to report the actions of superiors.

Degnan also said he understands the public’s frustration with the fact that both governors vetoed reform bills in their respective states in late December in favor of adopting a lengthy internal reform proposal. But he questioned the necessity of the reform legislation.

“Eighty percent of the recommendations have been implemented already, and 20 percent are useless,” he said.

Yet legislators in both states remain determined to nail down reform efforts in the law. At the latest board meeting, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg chastised the governors for vetoing the bills in spite of “unprecedented support” from legislators. And she made it clear that though some of the corruption has been weeded out, the Port Authority has a long way to go.

“(Samson’s) dealings continue to profoundly affect this agency,” Weinberg said. “Regardless of the promises made to executives, the Port Authority is and should be accountable to the millions of people who live and work in this region.”

According to a filing to potential bond buyers last month, Samson’s activities while Port Authority chairman have been subject of document requests from the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey, including those related to recusal and conflict of interest policies; a $1-a-year lease for a park-and-ride lot for New Jersey Transit, which Samson’s law firm represented; and Samson’s votes on United Airlines projects at Newark Airport at the same time United was restarting flights from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, near where Samson has a vacation home.

A spokeswoman for Samson declined comment on Friday.

In addition to the whistleblower policy, the Port Authority has adopted more liberal policies governing record requests and has allowed greater public access to committee meetings and board meetings. As a result, where board members were often seen but rarely heard during meetings, disagreements are now on full public display. This was particularly evident during last year’s debates over what economic commitment the Port Authority should make to help the completion of 3 World Trade Center by developer Larry Silverstein, an issue that revealed deep divisions among board members.

“While there are committee meetings - and, frankly, board sessions - that are held, partly in executive session, the amount of time on board day that’s spent in executive session is less than it used to be,” Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said.

Minutes from the July 26, 2001, board meeting, for instance, show that there was only a 9-minute portion of the full board meeting open to the public. The rest was spent in executive session.

All meetings now are, with limited exceptions, held in public. Agendas are published almost a week ahead, instead of the night before.

“There’s real, frank and candid discussion of issues by commissioners, which didn’t happen in the past,” Foye said. “Certainly when I first got here, when I sat through my first port authority board meeting, I wasn’t sure what happened. Honestly.”

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Barr reported from New York.

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