In New Jersey, Leader of an Agency Under Investigation Is Given a Judge’s Robe



Gov. Chris Christie recently paused in his war over traffic cones, gargantuan traffic jams and accusations of political retribution to nominate a few men as judges on the state’s Superior Court.

His nomination of John J. Matheussen, a fellow Republican, caught my eye. These are important, not to mention pleasant, jobs carrying salaries of at least $165,000 and the possibility of lifetime tenure.

Mr. Matheussen served a decade as the chief executive of the Delaware River Port Authority, a vast bistate fief that governs four major bridges to Pennsylvania and a mass transit system. There is no arguing that his was a complex job.

But unfortunate facts quickly crowd in.

In Philadelphia, a federal prosecutor is investigating the Delaware River Port Authority and its unchecked spending on development projects. These projects, without fail, came tethered to the authority’s commissioners and to Mr. Matheussen, who made $220,000 and had to sign off on every deal. The prosecutor sent out the most recent round of subpoenas last month.

I scratched a little further and read a 77-page report issued by the New Jersey comptroller in 2012. It turns out the agency, with the explicit knowledge of Mr. Matheussen, doled out a spectacular number of loans and grants to politically connected organizations, pitching the authority deep into debt. The comptroller’s investigators pored through the authority’s files and reported that, without fail, every project was missing required documentation.
A few authority projects came accompanied by almost nothing. No formal application, no specs, no work plan, nothing. The money invariably was paid out.

“In every area we looked at, we found people who treated D.R.P.A. like a personal A.T.M., from commissioner to private vendors to community organization,” noted A. Matthew Boxer, the state comptroller.

At this point a reasonable observer might inquire of the governor: Say what?

I wondered if the governor saw hidden strengths in his nominee. I put these questions to Colin Reed, a spokesman for Governor Christie, sending him a detailed email on Friday, and another on Monday. I am still waiting to hear back.

Not to worry. The New Jersey State Senate offers a constitutional check. It is controlled by the Democrats and they can push, prod, ask tough questions and reject nominations if they so desire.

They did not. The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, with one abstention, voted for Mr. Matheussen’s nomination. (The full Senate approved the nomination that same day.)

Reporters asked the State Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat, if Mr. Matheussen came with more ethical dents than a demolition derby hot rod.

“I’ve known John for many years, and he’s proven to be a dedicated public servant with exceptional ability,” Mr. Sweeney replied. Mr. Sweeney is well acquainted with the authority. His brother, Richard, serves as a commissioner on the Delaware River Port Authority and has received a subpoena in the federal investigation.

Which leads me to this point:

Governor Christie loves to emphasize his bipartisan credentials (It apparently was in search of bipartisan cred that his staff turned Fort Lee into a parking lot). When it comes to the southern half of the state, he is undoubtedly correct.

Governor Christie has struck a wonderfully accommodating partnership with George E. Norcross III, who is chairman of a powerful medical center in Camden and runs a politically wired insurance agency — Mr. Norcross arranged to get another insurance agency an authority contract, and it in turn gave his firm a $455,000 taste of that commission. Mr. Norcross long ago took out a lifetime mortgage on ownership of the Democratic Party in southern New Jersey.

Mr. Sweeney, a childhood friend of Mr. Norcross, is a brigadier in this organization.

Years ago, Mr. Norcross convinced Mr. Matheussen to give up his State Senate seat and become chief executive of the Delaware River Port Authority. This allowed Mr. Norcross and the Democrats to take control of the State Senate. In exchange, he worked out a deal that allowed Mr. Matheussen to keep his state pension even as he moved over to the authority, in that way quadrupling its value.

This is known as New Jersey win-win.

Which brings me to the point of this tale: “Christie’s totally fortified the boss system,” noted a prominent Republican in Trenton, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he saw no percentage in voicing such unpleasant thoughts on the record. “He’s strengthened and empowered it.”

Mr. Matheussen came to embrace the virtues of bipartisanship. At the authority, a reform-minded staff member asked him why Mr. Norcross’s insurance company, among others, received payments even though it had no contract with the authority.

The comptroller discovered the staffer’s email, in which she described what happened next.

“All I ever got was a closed door meeting where I was told ‘you don’t want to get in the middle of this,’ ” she wrote, adding that it was as if she was dealing with the mob “or somethin’.”

Two Republican state senators voted against the nomination of Mr. Matheussen. Their reasoning was old fashioned.

“I view becoming a Superior Court judge as the capstone of an impeccable professional career,” State Senator Mike Doherty said. “When a report says you and others used a public agency as an A.T.M. and you didn’t do anything to stop the abuses, you don’t deserve a pat on the back.”

As it happened, on Friday I reached Mr. Matheussen. I asked about his decade running an agency now under federal investigation. The judge demurred.

“I think that’s a question you would have to ask those who nominated me,” he said.

The judge should be credited with offering excellent advice.


Twitter: @powellnyt

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“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

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