Ringside: DRPA's family feud exposes waste, abuse

A summer scene on the Walt Whitman Bridge, as motorists clog the westbound lanes.
A summer scene on the Walt Whitman Bridge, as motorists clog the westbound lanes.

Reform is needed, but it isn't likely with the current board leadership and management.

Posted: August 15, 2010

There's a great scene toward the end of the movie Mississippi Burning when the FBI surreptitiously arranges for the mayor, sheriff, and others involved in the murder and cover-up of three civil rights workers to meet in a church.

As the conspirators gather, they accuse each other of calling an ill-timed meeting with the feds lurking. The FBI agent played by Gene Hackman listens to the carping via a wiretap and says: "Looks like the rattlesnakes are startin' to commit suicide."

The same thing could be said about the serpents running the Delaware River Port Authority. The issues differ, but for the past few weeks the DRPA's board of commissioners have engaged in public sniping, finger-pointing, and blatant ass-covering.

The events have provided a window into how the DRPA's so-called leaders really operate.

The agency was created to oversee the operation and maintenance of four bridges that connect Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as the PATCO line. But the 16 board members are there because of whom they know - not what they know about bridges or safety. It's basically a $300 million shadow government used to funnel funding, contracts, and jobs to friends, family, and firms with ties to whoever is in power in Pennsylvania and New Jersey at the time.

If there happens to be any money left over, the bridges may get a fresh coat of paint.

The players may change, but the game has always been the same: Divvy up the public pork and do it in the dark.

I remember covering a DRPA meeting in 1997 in which the board was to discuss giving $50 million to lure Norwegian shipbuilder Kvaerner ASA to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The money was part of a $400 million package in federal, state, and local tax money earmarked for Kvaerner.

The meeting was supposed to begin at 10 a.m. For two hours, the public waited while the DRPA board hashed out the deal behind closed doors. A catered lunch arrived at noon. I recall then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who was on the board before going to prison, exiting the backroom with a big smile.

After the board ate, the members opened the meeting and approved the funding in minutes, with little debate. That's how business gets done at the DRPA.

The latest scandals would have gone on without much public scrutiny if not for questions raised by electricians union boss John Dougherty.

That's right. Johnny Doc is so far the good guy among a gang that can't shoot straight. Critics say Dougherty may be doing the right thing but for all the wrong reasons, claiming that he went nuclear after the DRPA failed to hire one of his patronage picks. Regardless, to his credit, Dougherty's prodding has exposed the DRPA for what it is: a political rat's nest.

In the midst of the infighting it was disclosed that the DRPA's head of public safety borrowed an E-ZPass transponder from another DRPA official for his daughter to travel across the bridge to get to her private high school. That was the final straw for taxpayers, who were already irate over the DRPA's toll hikes, spending sprees, patronage, and high salaries.

Two board members - Pennsylvania's Treasurer Rob McCord and Auditor General Jack Wagner - are asking the right questions.

Sensing how the political winds are blowing, Gov. Rendell accepted some blame and called for ending free toll and car allowances for employees, eliminating no-bid contracts, and strengthening conflict-of-interest and antinepotism policies.

It's amazing that Rendell can maintain a straight face in calling for reforms, given that he appointed the board members from Pennsylvania and was the board chairman before turning over that role to his former chief of staff, John Estey. Estey's law firm, Ballard Spahr, has deep ties to Rendell and has benefited from the DRPA's pin-striped patronage.

Estey claimed that the recent criticisms of the DRPA were "a lot of smoke, but not a lot of fire." Perhaps Estey was confused by the other fire he was battling surrounding the Family Court debacle.

Or maybe it just shows how Estey and others entrenched at the DRPA view closed-door meetings, patronage, nepotism, and no-bid contracts as just standard operating procedure. Estey later called for some reforms, but it's hard to see real change taking place under the current board leadership and management.

Consider board member Frank DiCicco, the city councilman who backed the measure to raise city property taxes by 10 percent. He wants some DRPA jobs eliminated, including one of Dougherty's patronage hires. Not on the list was DiCicco's ex-wife, who just happens to work at the DRPA.

Maybe the rattlesnakes are starting to commit suicide.


E-mail deputy editorial page editor Paul Davies at pdavies@phillynews.com.

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