Why did Cuomo wait to fix a Port problem?

George Washington Bridge. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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Governor Andrew Cuomo technically shares control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with Governor Chris Christie, though you wouldn't know it from his silence on the latest scandal to tarnish the reputation of the sprawling bi-state infrastructure agency.

"To be hands-off and not be concerned about it, while the other governor has an active interest in arm-twisting the agency, that as far as I can recall is quite unusual," said Jameson Doig, author of the Port history, Empire on the Hudson, and a politics professor at Princeton.

In yet another glaring example of the infusion of politics into the bridge, tunnel and port agency, the authority's executive director, Pat Foye, has admitted he couldn't fire Christie's appointee David Wildstein for flagrantly violating authority procedure by failing to notify emergency personnel before ordering the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, snarling traffic on the New Jersey side of the bridge for a week.

The apparent reason for Wildstein's action: Christie was angry that the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, the town on the impacted side of the bridge, had failed to endorse his re-election campaign. 

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Foye was enraged, and his angry emails made it into the Wall Street Journal.

"If he were a New York appointee, would you have called him into your office and said 'why'd you do this?" New Jersey State Assemblyman John Wisniewski asked Foye, on Monday, according to WNYC.

"Yes and shortly thereafter fired him," responded Foye.

"But he was a New Jersey appointee," said Wisniewski.

"Yessir," said Foye.

That exchange may reflect political reality, but it is not the way the Port Authority is supposed to work.

Historically, the New York governor appoints the executive director, and on paper, the executive director is in charge of all personnel and operational decisions: the nitty-gritty stuff. The New Jersey governor appoints the board chairman and on paper, that chairman and the board he leads handle big-think, strategic policy decisions.

In fact, Christie has made dozens of patronage appointments to the authority.

For Wildstein, an old colleague of Christie's who lacked infrastructure expertise, a new position was created: director of interstate capital projects, according to someone familiar with the authority's operations.

"Pat Foye is faced with an unenviable position in which he’s expected to be the key person leading the Port Authority, but he has insufficient support by Governor Cuomo, who doesn’t really seem to care whether the Port Authority operates effectively or not, and he has strong resistance by a governor in New Jersey who appears to think the Port Authority is better used as a source of patronage," said Doig.

Cuomo's office had no comment for this article.

But perhaps the New York governor made his presence felt in the end: After holding out for weeks, Wildstein ended up resigning.

"What happened here is Cuomo didn’t have to care, until last week, when Pat Foye got subpoenaed, and then you saw Wildstein quit," one former Port Authority staffer told me, adding, "The Port doesn’t work how the Port is supposed to work."