The George Washington Bridge
The George Washington Bridge (Rudy Balasko / iStockphoto.com)

William “Pat” Schuber, a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, testified Tuesday that he did not inquire into last fall’s suspect George Washington Bridge access lane closures because he wanted to avoid political infighting.

“It became partisan,” Schuber told the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation during a four-hour hearing. “I saw this quickly becoming a political football and…I didn’t want to be in the middle.”

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the committee’s co-chair, said she was disappointed that Schuber, a former three-time Republican Bergen County executive, did not act as more of an advocate for Bergen County residents.

One topic of discussion was a letter Weinberg wrote to Schuber on Sept. 19, discussing his lack of assistance in response to her concerns about the lane closures.

“I am disappointed in the authority’s response, but on a personal level I am disappointed in your lack of advocacy on behalf of the residents of Bergen County,” Weinberg wrote. “When you were confirmed before the Senate you stated, both privately to me and publicly, that you were going to be the voice for Bergen County residents to the authority. Sadly, at least based on your public actions, this does not appear to me to be the case.”

Schuber discussed the letter with Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who called Weinberg a “jerk” in an email. In response, Schuber suggested Weinberg was still angry over his defeat of her in the 1998 county executive election.

Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, said this appeared to attack the messenger rather than to address a problem. Schuber denied that, noted he is the only commissioner so far to testify before the committee.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the committee’s other co-chair, asked Schuber who would have had oversight of a decision to close the lanes. Schuber said that the commissioners normally rely on the professional staff in such matters.

The closures are believed to have been orchestrated by former Port Authority director of interstate capital projects David Wildstein, a political appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, and by Bridget Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to the governor.

Wisniewski complained that the Port Authority for years has ignored requests made under the Freedom of Information Act from the Assembly Transportation Committee, which he chairs, regarding Port Authority projects and spending.

“We’ve taken steps to streamline that process,” Schuber replied.

Wisniewski said it was the lack of any response to the FOIA requests that led the Transportation Committee, and later the Select Committee on Investigations, to seek subpoena power.

Tuesday’s testimony from Schuber dealt not only with the lane closures but also with other Port Authority projects and how the bistate agency operates.

Wisniewski questioned him about the Port Authority’s massive toll hikes in 2012 for trans-Hudson bridges and tunnels. There were eight public hearings on one single day, Wisniewski said, asking Schuber if he attended any of them.

Schuber said no. Wisniewski asked why not.

“I have no idea,” Schuber replied.

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, labeled the Port Authority “dysfunctional” and pressed Schuber on whether he knew of the circumstances behind the agency’s decision to award an architect, Santiago Calatrava, $500,000 for design work on the Goethals Bridge that it did not solicit.

Schuber said he was not familiar with the issue.

“You were not in the room when the decision was made?” Handlin asked.

“I do not remember voting on that,” Schuber responded.

The committee had also scheduled the appearance of Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But his testimony has been indefinitely delayed at the request of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, whose office is leading a grand jury investigation into the closings.

It was Foye who ordered the lanes reopened and suggested that the closures may have violated state or federal law.

Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Passaic, asked Schuber what he thought of Foye’s recent statement that he was “proud” to have given that order.

“I have no objections to Mr. Foye’s professionalism,” Schuber said.

But he said that in the future, an executive director, who is in charge of day-to-day operations, should be hired after a nationwide search and that a candidate should have professional qualifications. “You can’t just plop a political appointee into that position,” Schuber said.

Foye, an attorney, had been with New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom before he was named executive director. He also had been chairman of the Empire State Development Corp. and a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member.

Near the end of the hearing, Wisniewski returned to Schuber’s decision to not look into the lane closings despite repeated inquiries. Wisniewski asked Schuber if, as a lawyer, he became “a little nervous” after Foye suggested that laws may have been broken.

“You have to rely on staff to do the right thing, and this is how I felt about it,” Schuber said.

Wisniewski asked Schuber if he believed he fulfilled his fiduciary responsibility.

“I believe I have served the Port Authority professionally,” Schuber replied. “Could I do better? I believe I could.”

Schuber is of counsel to DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole in Teaneck.

In other Port Authority-related action on Tuesday, Christie officially submitted the nominations of former Attorney General John Degnan and George Laufenberg to become chairman and commissioner, respectively.

Degnan, a Democrat, served as Attorney General from 1978 to 1981. Before that, he worked in various capacities, including special counsel, to Gov. Brendan Byrne. Until his retirement in December 2010, Degnan was the chief operating officer at the Chubb Corp.

Since 1984, Laufenberg has been the administrator of the New Jersey Carpenters Fund, which manages $2 billion in health, pension, annuity and vacation benefits for about 20,000 active and retired carpenters. Laufenberg also is the current president and chairman of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Laufenberg’s political affiliation was not immediately available.

Degnan will replace Samson, who resigned earlier this year. Samson’s firm, West Orange’s Wolff & Samson, is said to be under scrutiny as part of the federal grand jury investigation into the lane closures and other Port Authority activities.

Laufenberg will replace Anthony Sartor, who also resigned earlier this year.

Both nominations must be confirmed by the state Senate.

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com