Hooker: Corzine, Christie – two men in search of answers

POLITICKER COLUMN – It was a tough week for coming up with answers for two men who seemed to have all of them when they faced off against each other in the New Jersey governor’s race two years ago.

Former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine found himself before Congress Thursday trying to convince his old counterparts in the House that he wasn’t at fault for the $1.2 billion in client money that’s gone famously missing from the accounts of now-bankrupt MF Global.

Corzine headed the Wall Street brokerage firm from March 2010 until just before it collapsed in October.

“I simply do not know where the money is or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date,” Corzine, a former U.S. senator and one-time head of Goldman Sachs, told the House Agriculture Committee.

“I’m not in a position, given the number of transactions, to know anything specific about the movement of any specific funds,” Corzine was quoted by the Associated Press. But he said he made MF Global’s bets on risky European debt – bets that ultimately led to his company’s downfall – only after discussions with company executives who’d traded in that debt long before he arrived.

“The marketplace lost confidence in our firm,” Corzine told the panel.

Meantime, Corzine’s old nemesis, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, was busy a couple of hundred miles north trying to explain away as somebody else’s fault billions of dollars in port authority toll increases that took effect in September that it turns out may have less to do with transportation and more do with rebuilding the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

Never mind that the governor has veto power over the actions of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which coincidentally adopted a $7 billion 2012 budget Thursday, $2 billion of which is earmarked for the World Trade Center project.

“Chris Ward was an awful manager,” Christie told reporters in Teaneck Thursday following a press conference on his sick leave reform tour. “He didn’t tell the truth about how much money was being spent down there.”

Chris Ward is the port authority executive director who resigned effective last month, about six weeks after toll hikes of as much as 50 percent took effect at the authority’s Hudson River crossings.

But Ward wasn’t the big boss at the authority and didn’t personally approve toll hikes.

That privilege of taking the big bite out of toll- and fare-payers’ pockets belongs to the authority’s board of commissioners.

And the man seated at the head of that table, the chairman, is David Samson, a high-powered attorney appointed back in January by – and you may have guessed this by now – none other than Gov. Christie.

By way of background, AAA New York got the billion-dollar-plus dust-up going by filing suit in federal court. And on Thursday they were before a judge trying to block the toll hikes, arguing the increases illegally subsidize the multi-billion dollar World Trade Center project the authority’s building to replace the one destroyed in the September 11 terror attacks.

AAA, according to published reports in The Record and elsewhere, argues federal law requires toll hikes to be “fair and reasonable” and points to past court decisions restricting use of toll money to transportation projects and facilities.

The advocacy group argues that port authority officials, when discussing the need for a toll increase, initially spoke of the need to help pay for the World Trade Center project. The Record also reports that was part of the company line when authority officials mentioned the cost of the project was a factor in the agency’s financial condition.

But the authority is now claiming that its bridges, tunnels and other transportation infrastructure are traditionally a drag on the rest of the budget and that tolls only help underwrite what are essentially money-losing enterprises.

The whole shootin’ match even has the authority’s chairman working hard to talk his way through the controversy.

He told reporters after the board’s meeting Thursday that the toll hike was never meant to help pay for the trade center and that references to that project were only cited as a means to boost the agency’s overall finances.

“Inevitably, if you’re going to be talking about the overall financial condition of the agency, you’re going to talk about security that was added post 9/11, and the World Trade Center,” Samson was quoted as saying by the Star Ledger.

AAA says port lawyers and officials are changing their tune in reaction to its lawsuit.

But the governor says he’s troubled by the allegation that the toll hike is helping to underwrite a project that has nothing to do with crossing the bridge at $12 a pop, up from $8.

A few months ago in a joint statement Christie issued with Gov. Cuomo, the two governors pronounced themselves pleased with a revised proposal that brought down even steeper increases than were initially sought.

“We are pleased that our work together resulted in a lowering of the original toll increase,” they said.

Today, it’s a concerned Gov. Christie wondering whether those toll hikes may have been too high for the wrong reasons.

But either way, he says the blame for the whole thing shouldn’t be laid at his doorway.

“I’m as concerned as anybody about it,” Christie said. “But there’s certain things you inherit based on the mismanagement and inattentiveness of your predecessors.”

But Samson, Christie’s appointment, was presumably right there the whole time; or at least since last Feb. 3, when he took over as board chairman. A former state attorney general under Jim McGreevey in the early 2000s, he’s also an accomplished professional the governor presumably knows well.

Samson served as counsel to the governor’s campaign for governor in 2009 and chaired Christie’s transition committee. Surely a man who’s got the governor’s ear.

Or maybe Bill Baroni, the former Republican senator from Mercer County who Christie put in the $289,000-a-year deputy executive director’s job back in March of 2010.

But neither Baroni, nor Samson nor Christie nor Christie’s New York counterpart, Andrew Cuomo, saw fit to put the brakes on the speeding bullet of hefty toll hikes; proposed and adopted in a matter of weeks and after just a single day of business-hour public hearings.

No matter, any error here is something “you inherit…,” as the governor tells the world.

So like Corzine in Washington pointing to others for the billion dollars in losses incurred by the unsuspecting customers of MF Global, Christie was here in New Jersey the same day pointing the finger elsewhere on toll increases that may overreach to the tune of billions of dollars sucked out of the pockets of tens of thousands of commuters and other travelers daily.

Makes you wonder how the two old archenemies would’ve handled this on the campaign trail or at a debate.

Surely they would’ve had the answers.

Hooker: Corzine, Christie – two men in search of answers