Cuomo chips away at Chris Ward’s pedestal by leaking news of an audit, but Bloomberg isn’t having it

Bloomberg at a press conference on repavement coordination. (Dana Rubinstein)
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This morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed back against an apparent effort by the Cuomo administration to muddy the legacy of outgoing Port Authority executive director Chris Ward, who is leaving at the end of the month and who does not have a good working relationship with the governor.

“All I know is that people think it’s amazing that we got the memorial open on time,” said Bloomberg, during a press conference on another matter in Woodside.

Bloomberg also said, “Between the litigation, and the environmental concerns, and the respect for the families and the economic reality of a downturn, I think the Port Authority, everybody that works there, deserves to get a lot of credit. They’ve done a great job. And when you talk to people down there, Chris Ward was part of that, and a very important part, and he gets nothing but good reviews.”

Andrew Cuomo has very different feelings about Ward, who has indirectly tweaked the administration on his way out the door by criticizing an apparent unwillingness on the part of political leaders to commit to making investments in transportation infrastructure. Ward's comments about infrastructure spending were made against a backdrop of almost theatrical levels of outrage from Cuomo and New Jersey governor Chris Christie over a Port Authority plan to raise tolls on bridges and tunnels.

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It was hard to believe at the time that the authority's plan could have taken the governors by surprise. Much more likely, they were shifting outrage onto an authority nobody particularly liked anyway, and an executive whom Cuomo was planning to dump. Likewise, it is unlikely that the authority's expenditures downtown will have come as news to the governor, since Ward is required to report regularly to the Port Authority board, which is controlled by Cuomo and Christie.

But like clockwork, it was reported this morning by New York Post state editor Fred Dicker, who has a long and friendly relationship with Cuomo, that Ward's management of spending on the World Trade Center recovery is going to be the topic of a critical audit commissioned by the governor.

“A source close to the Cuomo administration” told Dicker that the an audit reveals Ward engaged in “extravagant overspending” in order "to step up the rebuilding" of the site for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

“There is no doubt Ward got a lot of the construction going, and that he has a network of people he’s pleased as a result, but at what cost?” the source told Dicker. “But you can’t credit Ward with accelerating the construction without holding him liable for the bill. The economics of this are going to be terrible for New York for decades to come as the bills keep coming in.”

A “second source” told Dicker that the departing Port Authority head was “more concerned about what Mayor Bloomberg thought of the reconstruction timetable than he was about the cost to the state he was supposed to be working for.”

Ward is widely credited with transforming Ground Zero from a morass of bureaucratic inefficiency into an active construction site, complete with actual, tangible accomplishments, like the Memorial plaza and the rising 1 World Trade Center. But as a Paterson-era appointee, he's never been Cuomo's guy.

Cuomo has rarely met with Ward directly; most of Ward’s communications with the governor have been relayed through the governor’s director of state operations, Howard Glaser, and then only via email. Cuomo’s recently released public schedules only further hammered home that point.

Cuomo is also said to have been upset by Ward and his supporters’ lobbying for his job in the press. Cuomo, who likes to maintain tight control over his public image and the operations of his press office, was also thought to be unhappy that news of Ward’s imminent departure leaked out before he was ready to release it. Nor is he likely to be thrilled that Ward’s departure has inspired an outpouring of support among infrastructure and transportation advocates.

Former ESDC co-chair Patrick Foye is said to be the frontrunner for the position.

When I called the Port Authority press office to ask whether an audit had already determined that Ward had overspent, as reported, they had no comment. But they did refer me to a September 30 press release about a new committee charged with reviewing the authority's "past and current governance, management and financial practices." Its results are expected in about 90 days, or mid-December.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

The official purpose of Bloomberg's press conference today was to announce a Department of Transportation initiative to improve coordination of street paving with utility companies and contractors, and thereby reduce instances of streets getting repaved and then torn up again shortly thereafter for utility-related repairs. The initiative also increases fines for unauthorized street work.