Amid qualms, N.J. panel backs DRPA chief for judgeship

John Matheussen , the DRPA's chief executive.
John Matheussen , the DRPA's chief executive.
Posted: January 15, 2014

TRENTON The New Jersey Senate on Monday confirmed Delaware River Port Authority chief executive John Matheussen as a Superior Court judge, despite some lawmakers' concerns about a continuing federal investigation of the agency's spending.

The legislators who opposed the nomination also cited a March 2012 report by state Comptroller Matthew Boxer, who examined management at the agency and concluded that "in nearly every area we looked at, we found people who treated the DRPA like a personal ATM."

At a Judiciary Committee hearing earlier Monday, Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), a member of the Judiciary Committee, described the DRPA as a "troubled agency" and asked Matheussen if he agreed.

"I think my agency is cooperative," replied Matheussen, a former Republican state senator.

"Sen. Matheussen does not think the agency is troubled despite the Boxer report and despite the ongoing federal investigation. I think that speaks to a lack of good judgment with respect to this matter," Cardinale later said before casting a "no" vote.

The nomination advanced from the committee and then passed the full Senate, 29-7, during an evening session.

The Senate also confirmed several other nominees for Superior Court judgeships, including Robert Hanna, president of the state Board of Public Utilities. Democratic lawmakers had blocked Republican Gov. Christie's move to appoint Hanna, of Morris County, to the state Supreme Court, citing concern that it would create a partisan imbalance on the high court.

Since April, the U.S. Attorney's Office has been investigating millions of dollars of economic-development spending by the DRPA, the bistate agency that operates four toll bridges and the PATCO commuter line between Philadelphia and South Jersey.

The office has issued subpoenas to several officials and employees at the DRPA, including three board members. Matheussen has not been issued a subpoena.

The agency spent nearly $500 million over 15 years to back sports stadiums, museums, a cancer center, and other nontransportation projects.

Cardinale noted that the DRPA gave money to several organizations on whose boards of directors Matheussen serves, and asked if he believed that constituted a conflict of interest.

Matheussen, of Washington Township, said he sits on many of those boards by virtue of being chief executive of the DRPA. For others, such as the South Jersey Development Council, Matheussen said he is on the board because as CEO he frequently interacts with them.

He added that as CEO, he had no vote on any of the applications seeking funding from the DRPA.

As for the DRPA's spending habits, he said, "We have our financial house in order. We've managed to pay down a great deal of debt that has occurred as a result of economic development."

The DRPA is $1.6 billion in debt, and half of its annual operating budget goes to pay debt service.

Sen. Mike Doherty (R., Warren) acknowledged that when Matheussen became CEO in 2003, economic-development spending declined. But "then you seemed to contribute to the same problem," said Doherty, who also voted against the nominee.

Matheussen said he did not have a vote in deciding to spend money on economic development projects and expressed reservations about those decisions.

"It was never my intention to do economic development," he said. "It was my responsibility as CEO to carry out the plans of the board."

Also Monday, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called on Christie to delay appointing a new chief executive of the DRPA until a nationwide search could be conducted to replace Matheussen.

DePasquale is one of eight Pennsylvania representatives on the DRPA's board. New Jersey also has eight representatives on the board.

"A national search is necessary to ensure we get the best qualified professional to, literally, make sure the trains run on time for the people paying the fare," DePasquale said.

"We need to ensure the next leader of the authority has the appropriate background and experience to oversee this transportation operation with the residents' best interests in mind."



Inquirer staff writer Paul Nussbaum contributed to this article.

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