Kevin Riordan: Patronage among the power brokers

in the state's audit of the Delaware River Port Authority was a mass gift of E-ZPasses accidentally sent to 53 people who had no connection to the agency. MICHAEL PEREZ / File Photograph
in the state's audit of the Delaware River Port Authority was a mass gift of E-ZPasses accidentally sent to 53 people who had no connection to the agency. MICHAEL PEREZ / File Photograph (Among irregularities reported)
Posted: April 01, 2012

New Jersey's scathing audit of the Delaware River Port Authority unearthed a way of doing business retro enough for a Mad Men episode stripped of its wit, style, and cigarettes.

There's precious little glamour in the audit's depressing depiction of pals and pols burning through millions in public money behind closed doors.

Tacky patronage perks such as $2,000 in tickets to a "Gypsy Melodies Gala" (imagine the outfits) look like a steal compared to other "wasteful and inappropriate spending" that state Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer outlined Thursday.

His 77-page audit illuminates a profligate, thoroughly wired operational lifestyle inside DRPA's candy-colored headquarters.

Big bucks got doled out after little more than a meaningful glance across a crowded boardroom in that tower on the Camden waterfront. Incestuous transactions were vehemently defended; it was "like dealing with the f-ing mob," the audit quotes an employee as saying.

The investigators from the Office of the State Comptroller found DRPA business, professional, and political relationships dysfunctionally intertwined. Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody, so sometimes nobody bothered to write down the details of, say, a contract for professional services.

For example, DRPA was "unable to provide . . . any documents or correspondence related to its selection" of insurance broker Willis New Jersey. The audit noted the company "did not even know [it] was under consideration for the DRPA broker position."

(Forget Mad Men. This sounds more like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.)

Perhaps due to the amnesia epidemic afflicting many who spoke to the comptroller's office, even normally savvy DRPA board member Jeffrey Nash professed cluelessness about how Willis was appointed. Or anointed.

Turns out Willis got the good news from insurance executive George E. Norcross III - despite the fact neither Norcross nor his company, now called Conner, Strong & Buckelew, "formally" worked for DRPA.

The audit says Willis subsequently "made payments to Conner Strong and a related broker named Michael Martucci in the amount of $455,000," transactions about which DRPA officials claimed ignorance.

Norcross - board chairman of Cooper University Hospital, champion of the proposed merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan Universities, and potential buyer of the company that owns this newspaper - told the comptroller's office the payments emanated from a "handshake" marketing deal with Willis and had nothing to do with DRPA.

A "handshake" worth half a mil? Cool!

The comptroller's office also outlines how a collegial cluster of insurance brokers shared commissions "regardless of whether [they] actually performed any corresponding services."

Seems DRPA's priority was not as much about operating bridges as making sure companies, contributors, and cronies on both sides of the Delaware got an equal share of the goodies. This bistate, bipartisan largesse also applied to the $440 million in economic-development grants and loans - some offered without the need of, you know, an application - to an eclectic array of friends of DRPA.

Similarly, the authority concocted a "social and civic sponsorship fund" that repurposed $700,000 in toll and fare proceeds to pay for tickets to special events like the aforementioned "Gypsy" bash.

Also cited are those well-known free E-ZPasses, including an accidental mass gift to 53 people "with no affiliation to the DRPA whatsoever."

Oops.

Excavating this subterranean world of mistakes, handshakes, and spoils-sharing, the authors of the audit are diplomatic. They cite DRPA's recent efforts at reform, and the fact that the goings-on appear to have been legal.

But the audit also shows how much people in power like to do what they want. And as is the case with the ill-advised plan to merge our universities, they really don't care what we want. They just want our money.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|