As Dems worry about intra-party scuffle, Lautenberg fights back armed with DRPA report

Democrats observed the ongoing Lautenberg/Norcross cage match with dismay, worried that once again Gov. Chris Christie stands to gain from an intraparty fight, but a state comptroller’s report detailing alleged waste and abuse at the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) today gave U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) an opportunity to batter his South State rival, George Norcross III, with a renewed sense of authority.

Whoever wins the battle of Democratic heavyweights matters little to some rank and file members who just see Democrats feeding on Democrats.

“We’re killing ourselves,” muttered one Dem within earshot of “We don’t argue publicly in caucus, and now we’ve got these two guys – the public faces of the party, going at it across a north-south divide.

“If you’re the president running this year, if you’re looking at the State of New Jersey, a situation like this obviously favors Mitt Romney,” the source added.

But an ill-timed wrinkle for Norcross gave the senator an edge, as Comptroller Matt Boxer’s report details questionable spending and mismanagement at the DRPA, a South Jersey backyard operation.

Among other things, the report found that the agency ignored procedures intended to prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars, spending money on projects that had nothing to do with running a port authority. The report notes the only contemporaneous document regarding the selection of N.J. brokerage firm Willis (paid nearly $500,000 over seven years for reasons unrelated to the placement of insurance) reveals notification by an independent party with no formal affiliation with DRPA, specifically, the chief executive officer of Commerce Insurance Services, now known as Conner Strong & Buckelew.

Norcross serves as chairman of Connor, Strong and Buckelew.

Today The Philadelphia Inquirer story reported that Comptroller Boxer “exposed an insurance payback deal allegedly orchestrated by George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey insurance executive and Democratic Party power broker who is chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital in Camden.”

Lautenberg seized on the comptroller’s review.

“The residents of South Jersey deserve better,” said the U.S. Senator. “This is yet another example of how a corrupt political machine operates to enrich itself and local politicians at the expense of everyday people. As I always have, I will continue to stand up for the residents of this region against endemic corruption, and I encourage other public officials to finally do the same.” 

Conner Strong & Buckelew said in a prepared release, “We fully support the OSC’s efforts to advance transparency and trust at DRPA, and are pleased that its findings ultimately show that Commerce Insurance Services and its successor companies acted in an entirely proper, legal and ethical manner in full compliance with all statutory, regulatory, industry and professional standards.”

Norcross responded to Lautenberg in a statement.

“Aside from the absurdity of his comments, it’s interesting to note that he never expressed these sentiments when he literally begged for South Jersey’s support in all of his campaigns for re-election. It’s the height of hypocrisy. It’s appalling that the only time Sen. Lautenberg shows any interest at all in South Jersey is when he needs campaign money and votes. He has been missing-in-action on the critical issues affecting the citizens of this region.”

The comptroller’s report landed a day after Lautenberg and Norcross exchanged bitter words.

Following up on a Feb. 22 letter he wrote, the senator Wednesday reiterated his skepticism over the proposed gobble-up by Rowan University of Rutgers/Camden, a plan championed by South Jersey Democratic Leader Norcross and backed by Gov. Chris Christie.

Norcross responded that Lautenberg has been a great senator – for North Jersey.

Complicating the clash were public excoriations of Lautenberg by state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) in support of the Rowan for Rutgers deal, fueling statewide speculation that Sweeney intends to parlay his U.S. Senate PAC into a South Jersey-based run sooner rather than later.

Hand-wringing persisted in the cloakrooms of party pooh-bahs tired of watching Christie navigate around grappling Democrats, as he did during a public pension fight last year that divided the Democratic Party.

“This guy plays it brilliantly,” moaned a Democratic source, referring to the Republican governor.

But at least one Democratic source said the same Democrats whined during the public sector fight – right before Democrats picked up a seat in the Legislature and dented Christie with headlines exclaiming GOP vulnerability. South Jersey Democrats irritated at Lautenberg for punching away at Norcross point out that love him or hate him, the South Jersey powerbroker raised a considerable amount of money for those legislative races resulting in Democratic Party victories, while Lautenberg mostly sat on his hands.

Yet Lautenberg forces, on the strength of the comptroller report, remained determined to show how Norcross’ money has damaged the moral credibility of the party, creating an opportunity for Christie and the GOP.  They see the issues of Rowan/Rutgers and the DRPA as relted, citing a troubling link between the port authority and empowering another Norcross-run institution.

And those Democrats made the case for a coming tipping point where Christie’s political relationship with Norcross would have to stick to him more than it has to date.

Those same sources conceded, though, that it hasn’t stuck yet. 

“As soon as Governor Christie took office, he zeroed in on the DRPA as among the worst offenders in terms of abusing toll payer money for employee and commissioner perks and large-scale spending outside the agency’s core mission,” said Christie Press Secretary Michael Drewniak. “With unrelenting pressure on the board – whose New Jersey membership was stacked by Governor Corzine before he left office – Governor Christie and his Authorities Unit forced the DRPA to implement critical reforms and fundamentally change its practices and culture. The report on the Comptroller’s investigation, which was requested by Governor Christie and former Pennsylvania Governor Rendell, covers a history of financial mismanagement at DRPA which thankfully is behind us. Governor Christie fully supports the Comptroller’s findings and recommendations and will continue to work with Governor Corbett in enforcing reforms at DRPA.”  As Dems worry about intra-party scuffle, Lautenberg fights back armed with DRPA report