Christie's vetoes rely on her authority

Deborah Gramiccioni talks with Delaware River Port Authority Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash (left) before a meeting of the DRPA in Camden. Nash calls her "outstanding" and says he has worked with her on dozens of resolutions to clean up management and spending practices.
Deborah Gramiccioni talks with Delaware River Port Authority Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash (left) before a meeting of the DRPA in Camden. Nash calls her "outstanding" and says he has worked with her on dozens of resolutions to clean up management and spending practices. (Tom Gralish)

Deborah Gramiccioni, 39, runs the unit that scours minutes of agency meetings for signs of waste. She relishes the role.

Posted: March 06, 2011

TRENTON - Gov. Christie's enforcer talks quickly and carries a big smile.

She's there for the marathon meetings of the Delaware River Port Authority. She's on the phone at the Statehouse getting an earful from the entrenched head of some governmental agency that few taxpayers have heard of. She's at a news conference, standing in her boss' shadow, listening to him rail against the scourge of political greed.

Deborah Gramiccioni, 39, was handpicked by Christie to take a job, that, despite its stuffy title - director of the Authorities Unit - has come to personify so much about his eventful 14 months in office.

As the authorities czar, Gramiccioni is in charge of the attorneys who comb through meeting minutes of government boards, commissions, and authorities in search of inappropriate spending, excessive contracts, and any other tidbit of waste that might make Christie's head explode through the Statehouse dome.

Based on Gramiccioni's recommendations, Christie has already wielded his veto authority over the minutes of such entities 19 times. The Corzine administration hardly ever used the power.

For Christie, the veto is just the beginning. From there he proceeds with the public flogging, using town-hall meetings and news releases to cite the authorities' abuses and build the perception that he is a corruption-busting, budget-cutting, no-nonsense gubernatorial machine.

"We're asking more questions than ever before, and that is taking a number of these authorities by surprise," said Gramiccioni, who talks in rapid-fire bursts punctuated by wide smiles.

The result? "Angry defiance has become the norm in my world."

In Christie's first month, he vetoed the meeting minutes of four authorities.

The Schools Development Authority took the first hit for approving $1.3 million for a construction project at Burlington City High School after there had been $17.6 million in change orders.

Since then, the New Jersey Racing Commission moved to hold a $10,000 banquet and a $42,500 festival: Vetoed. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority approved five contracts worth $5 million, all at higher prices than other firms had bid: Vetoed. The Higher Education Student Assistance Authority retained attorneys without competitive bidding: Vetoed.

Gramiccioni oversees 55 entities that use public money, but the governor does not have veto power over all of them. So to provide "parental supervision" (as Christie calls it) for the others, the Authorities Unit sends letters asking questions about raises and perks that might never make it onto board meeting minutes. This is the first time this has been done.

"We have to be creative about what's going on at these authorities and what we're going to do about them," Gramiccioni said. "And so, basically, we ask a lot of questions, and, candidly, we don't go away."

In addition, Gramiccioni or one of her four attorneys shows up at all meetings of the authority boards and committees.

"I like to call it policing the invisible - policing what has historically gone under the radar," she said.

Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said going after authorities so early in Christie's term was "brilliant," because New Jerseyans' first impression was that their new Republican governor was a fiscal watchdog.

"The examples that he chose were so egregious and resonated with people," Harrison said.

"People would say, 'I don't know what he's doing, but I know he busted these authorities, and they were political hotbeds' . . . and that lends him a certain degree of credence with the public."

A former athlete (she was captain of the University of Pennsylvania soccer team) and a former prosecutor focusing on political corruption (Christie met her when he became U.S. attorney), Gramiccioni is most like her boss in one way: She relishes a good rumble.

"I have very thick skin, I'm prepared for a fight, and I know how to go on offense when necessary," she said.

"I go to sleep at night knowing the next day is going to be another battle. And I look forward to it."

Gramiccioni, a mother of two, makes $136,617. She graduated from Christie's alma mater, Livingston High School, and her father, Marvin Goldklang, is a limited partner in the ownership of the New York Yankees.

Nicknamed "Tornado" by former colleagues, Gramiccioni cut her teeth on political corruption cases at the U.S. Attorney's Office, where she met her husband, Chris. He is now the first assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County, where they live.

After a brief stint at the Justice Department, Gramiccioni returned to New Jersey to work at the Attorney General's Office as director of the Division of Criminal Justice under Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

After Corzine lost his bid for a second term in 2009, Christie called her in.

"I said, 'I have a whole new assignment that I think you're going to like a lot more,' " Christie said in an interview. "And when she heard not only about the job but the way I intended to exercise the authority, then she was sold."

Christie picked her, he said, because she is "smart," "fearless," and has "high energy." Gramiccioni is one of several people he brought over from the U.S. Attorney's Office for prominent positions in his administration.

Matthew Boxer, the independent state comptroller, who recently released a report detailing the lack of transparency at authorities, held Gramiccioni's job during the Corzine administration.

"I think it's fair to say that this administration has handled the role a little differently than perhaps previous administrations," said Boxer, who also worked with Gramiccioni at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"It's helpful to have somebody in that job who can be blunt and who is a straight shooter, but at the same time can do that without creating enemies every day. And that's a skill that Deb has."

Case in point: The beleaguered Delaware River Port Authority's minutes have been vetoed four times - more than any other entity. Despite that, the Democratic vice chairman of the DRPA, Jeffrey Nash, called Gramiccioni "outstanding" and said he had worked with her on dozens of resolutions to clean up management and spending practices.

As a result, he said, "if you cut through a lot of the rhetoric, you'll see the way the DRPA conducts business is significantly different from the way it was this time last year."

But State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) wonders why Christie makes such a show of vetoing minutes since the Authorities Unit receives all agendas beforehand. The unit could simply ask that items be pulled.

"What's that about?" Sweeney asked. "It's about creating this [perception]: 'Look what I'm doing. Look how I'm straightening these guys out.' "

That means, he said, "you're doing it just for headlines, not for substance."

Christie denied that. Agendas are often vague, he said. And with the latest veto of DRPA minutes over a payment to a lobbying firm, "what wasn't contained in the agenda was that they had no written contract and hadn't been through a bidding process."

Not all vetoes hold. After Christie rejected resolutions allowing DRPA employees to get free rides on bridges and PATCO trains, an arbitrator reinstated the trips because they were part of union agreements. Even Christie, a powerful governor, can't control everything.

Not yet, at least. Christie wants legislation that would give the governor power over all authorities - not just the 55 in state government, but also the nearly 600 local authorities that collect money, from the Camden Parking Authority to the Stratford Sewerage Authority to the Mount Holly Municipal Utilities Authority, where the salary of the executive director, William Dunn, is $192,796.

"People say, 'He's making more than the governor.' I have to say, 'So what? The authority benefits,' " Dunn told The Inquirer last month.

At a news conference, Christie could only call Dunn a "joker." That's why, he said, he needs more power.

"It's a license to steal, and the governor is best situated to provide that oversight," Christie said in an interview. "You don't hear a lot of people complaining about what we've been doing, except the people whose ox is being gored. Other than that, most people are really jazzed that the governor is spending time overseeing this thing."

That won't make Christie's enforcer any more popular, though.

"I'm not getting any Christmas cards from any of the authorities," Gramiccioni said, smiling.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz

at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com. Follow the "Christie Chronicles" blog

at philly.com/christiechronicles

 

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