TRENTON - As multiple investigations continue into lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, Gov. Christie named a former state attorney general Tuesday as the new chairman of the authority that runs the bridge.
The governor nominated John Degnan - who most recently worked as a senior executive at Chubb Corp., an insurance company based in Warren County - to lead the troubled bistate agency that controls bridges and tunnels connecting New Jersey and New York, as well as airports and the World Trade Center.
The nomination requires Senate approval.
Degnan, 69, a registered Democrat, would succeed David Samson, who resigned last month amid questions about conflicts of interests.
"I've asked John to take over the Port Authority's board at an important time, when it faces a number of really critical issues, from organizational reform to capital planning to ensuring the competitiveness of the port and the regional economies," Christie said at a Statehouse news conference.
The Republican governor said he had charged Degnan "to do what he has always done in public life and that is to bring his best judgment without prejudice toward any conclusions about where this agency needs to go."
Degnan, who served as attorney general under Gov. Brendan T. Byrne from 1978 to 1981, spoke briefly but did not take questions.
"Assuming the Senate gives me a chance to serve in this capacity, I'll come to the job without any preconceived ideas," he said. "Much has been written about what is needed at the Port Authority, and much of it sounds reasonable, but that is from the outside looking in, and all I can honestly say right now is that I am open to the best ideas we have."
Two other Port Authority officials - David Wildstein and Bill Baroni - resigned in the aftermath of the September lane closures, which caused massive traffic jams. The closures are believed to have been orchestrated as political payback to the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Christie for reelection.
Leading a legislative investigation into the closures is Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), who said he welcomed Degnan's nomination "with caution."
"Frankly, it can't get much worse at the Port Authority, so any change should be beneficial," he said, "but Mr. Degnan also brings with him the strong resumé and experience that makes me hopeful he will be an independent partner for reform."
Wisniewski's "to do" list for Degnan included confronting "the patronage pit, fiscal woes, crushing tolls, and poor management."
"We need accountability and transparency and a willingness to make changes," he said. "Abuses of government power and threats to public safety can no longer be acceptable."
The U.S. attorney also is investigating the bridge lane shutdowns.
Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union) criticized Christie's choice and questioned Degnan's ability to act independently.
"Not a good choice," said Lesniak, a member of the Judiciary Committee. "John Degnan went in the tank when he participated in Christie's hand-chosen group of attorneys to support a replacement for Justice [John] Wallace," whom Christie declined to renominate for the state Supreme Court in 2010.
"Just like Dave Sampson, another former A.G., he can't be expected to be an independent watchdog of an agency that has been exploited for political and personal gain," Lesniak said.
Sen. Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) praised Christie's pick.
"Reform at the Port Authority must begin with hiring the right people," Codey said in a statement. "Mr. Degnan is a man of high integrity."
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said Degnan's nomination was Christie's way of showing he was being proactive in trying to fix the reputation of the Port Authority.
"The fundamental questions involving the bridge lane closings - Why was this done? Who was involved? - remain unanswered," Dworkin said. "Therefore, while the appointment of John Degnan plugs a hole on the Port Authority board, it won't stop the pressure building because of Bridgegate. If this is damage control, it's not going to do much."
Christie: No cuts are ruled out as N.J. works to close an $807 million revenue gap. B5. EndText