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A pattern of wining and dining at South Jersey Port Corp.?

There was the Miami Beach conference last year that featured a $755 meal for eight and a $260 bar tab at the hotel. There was the Italian dinner for five at La Veranda on Penn's Landing in 2009 that cost $603, with one-quarter of the tab for wine.

Chris Christie vetoed the meeting minutes of the South Jersey Port Corp. May 13. (Mel Evans/AP)
Chris Christie vetoed the meeting minutes of the South Jersey Port Corp. May 13. (Mel Evans/AP)Read more

There was the Miami Beach conference last year that featured a $755 meal for eight and a $260 bar tab at the hotel. There was the Italian dinner for five at La Veranda on Penn's Landing in 2009 that cost $603, with one-quarter of the tab for wine.

But it was two bills for more than $800 each submitted last month by the South Jersey Port Corp. that caught the attention of Gov. Christie's office. Used to attract business to New Jersey, the two meals in Philadelphia and New Orleans were part of a $3,037 expense report that was deemed unacceptable for a government agency.

The governor vetoed the meeting minutes of the quasi-public agency May 13, rejecting the expenses and sending a message that "wining and dining" at this level and at the expense of taxpayers was unacceptable.

Records show that the port corporation, a state-controlled authority, has billed similar expenses going back at least two years. It also repeatedly violated a prohibition on using public money to pay for alcohol consumption, though port officials say they were never informed of this rule by their auditors, lawyers, or state officials.

Christie administration officials say they are particularly concerned about the port corporation's expenses because it depends on millions in state subsidies to make its debt payments. Expenses at other state-chartered authorities are also under review.

"Obviously they're trying to keep costs down, and obviously we'll try to comply with whatever they want," said Kevin Castagnola, the agency's assistant executive director. "We'll be happy to sit down with them and review any of our policies."

The port corporation operates marine terminals in Camden and Salem and is planning an expansion into Paulsboro. The agency, which has about 80 employees, is the largest landholder in Camden and specializes in handling wood, steel, and cocoa.

Port officials say the agency faces fierce competition from other East Coast ports to attract cargo and business investment. In light of Christie's crackdown, they said, they are reconsidering their marketing strategy. The topic is expected to come up at the agency's public meeting next week.

Such scrutiny is not new to the port agency.

A state audit in 2005 sparked an investigation by the Attorney General's Office after raising questions about financial incentives given to Joseph Balzano, the executive director, including reimbursements for 225 meals in 2004 totaling $13,000. No charges were brought.

In 2001, a port commissioner resigned amid a state investigation into expenses that he and a colleague had billed to the state after a trip to Mexico. Among the receipts submitted was $743 from a strip club.

More recent expenses have raised concerns in Christie's office, including $1,907 spent on televisions for nine employees as reward for going four consecutive years without injury or accident.

"People should not be rewarded with TVs for performing their job as they should be performing their job," said Deborah Gramiccioni, director of the office in the executive branch that monitors spending at the state's independent authorities.

The administration also rejected a request by the port corporation to send representatives to a conference in Belgium this month, saying the same trip last year did not generate new clients.

Castagnola said meetings from the trip had resulted in increased business from two existing customers. The agency considers that outreach essential to attracting business to its terminals, and Castagnola said he was concerned that representatives from the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority were attending while officials from his agency were not.

Records show Gramiccioni's office has also objected to the port corporation's policy of allowing certain employees to be paid annually for unused sick leave and to receive extra cash for perfect attendance, at a cost of $116,039 last year. Castagnola said that port employees worked through all kinds of weather and that incentive programs saved money. Still, the agency has frozen the program for nonunion workers at the request of the Christie administration.

But the bills for wining and dining have drawn the most attention lately.

Records show that in two weeks in November, for example, the corporation paid for a $639 dinner for 10 at Spasso Italian Grill in Old City, a $520 meal for seven at Taste Restaurant in New York, and a $276 dinner for five at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, also in New York. All were to promote the port agency's steel business, according to the records.

Castagnola also traveled widely to conferences and meetings. His trip in 2010 to the convention in Antwerp, Belgium, cost $2,298 and featured a meal for three that cost 139 euros, or $192 at the current exchange rate, and included sake and Hoegaarden beer. An expense report to New Orleans that year included a two-day stay at a Hilton hotel and meals there with several other people, at least one with alcohol, for $723.

Aaron Ellis, a spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities, noted that these agencies were wooing clients who often expected a certain level of luxury.

"It's not uncommon for ports to have an entertainment budget, and oftentimes entertainment requires meals. . . . It's all part and parcel of wooing clients," said Ellis. "If you can't provide that, it puts you at a competitive disadvantage."

"People come out to visit, and they expect to be taken out to dinner," said Balzano, asserting that the agency had submitted these kinds of expenses for years.

Castagnola said the port business involved building relationships with customers, which took place at conferences and over meals. And many meetings do not involve expenses, he added.

The April expense report vetoed by Christie featured a $834 dinner at La Veranda for seven, which officials said had been set up to discuss the cocoa industry with customers.

The report also contained an $872 dinner for at least nine people during another convention in New Orleans. Castagnola was meeting with customers who import wood products.

Gramiccioni said that her office rarely approved out-of-state trips for state agencies, but that they were allowed for the port corporation to encourage business.

"It wasn't so that they could wine and dine," she said of the rejected expenses. "It was so that they could use that as an opportunity to make connections. . . . We just are asking authorities such as this to be slightly more creative in how they generate business."