Christie never sought advice from ethics panel while Cowboys friend Jerry Jones bid on P.A. contract

By Claude Brodesser-Akner | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on January 06, 2015

The friendship between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, and Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones, right, first kindled in 2010, has become a source of controversy: Jones spent tens of thousands of dollars to fly Christie by private jet to his luxury sky box at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. last Sunday, and one of his companies also won a lucrative contract to provide hospitality services at the observatory of the Port Authority's One World Trade Center site.

 

TRENTON — During the 15 months that the Port Authority mulled awarding a lucrative hospitality contract to a company part-owned by the Dallas Cowboys, Gov. Chris Christie never solicited input from an advisory ethics panel specifically created to help governors avoid conflicts of interest, according to a former panel member and current Port Authority chairman, John Degnan.

On Monday, Christie’s office confirmed that his trip by private jet to Arlington, Texas, last Sunday to watch the Dallas Cowboys game from the luxury owner’s suite was paid by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, his friend. The state's ethics commissioner initially said the trip "seemed permissible" but many experts, including a fellow Republican former state ethics commissioner questioned the move.

That prompted the American Democracy Legal Fund, a left-leaning group with ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to file a complaint today with the New Jersey State Ethics Commission asking it to investigate whether the governor violated state ethics rules — including his own executive order.

In April 2010, in an updated version of the Governor's Code of Conduct, Christie signed Executive Order 24 stipulating that “all public officials must avoid conduct that violates the public trust or creates an appearance of impropriety.”

The NFL franchise, in partnership with the New York Yankees and investment fund Checketts Partners, all have a stake in Legends Hospitality, which won out in bidding to operate the observatory of the Port Authority controlled One World Trade Center when it opens later this year, officials confirmed today. Financial terms of that pact were never released to the public, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the deal.

Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo jointly oversee operations of the Port Authority.

In 2003, Gov. James McGreevey created through executive order a governor’s Advisory Ethics Panel to “advise the New Jersey’s governor regarding conflicts issues and application of the Governor's Code of Conduct” that would be staffed by the chairman of the state ethics commission along with two qualified public members.

In April 2010, Christie appointed his choices for those public slots: Degnan, a former New Jersey attorney general under Gov. Brendan Byrne and Richard Mroz, a former chief counsel for Gov. Christie Whitman.

In an interview with NJ Advance Media today, Degnan said “there was never an opinion asked of the panel by the governor’s office” regarding Christie’s friendship with Jones, which dates back to 2010.

Degnan said he resigned from the Advisory Ethics Panel in April 2014 because it wouldn’t be appropriate to hold both roles after accepting Christie’s offer to become the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“I resigned to the Governor’s staff orally that day in April,” he said.

A statement released by a Port Authority spokesman today said the agency's lease agreement with Legends for the observatory was the result of "a highly competitive procurement process that began in October 2011 and concluded in February 2013.”

The statement said Legends was selected as "the highest value proposer from among six qualified respondents” and that Legends’ proposal "provided for the highest lease payments of any bidder” resulting in its final approval in March 2013.

Calls and emails to both the State Ethics Commission’s executive director Susana Guerrero and the commission’s chairman, Andrew Berns were not returned this evening.

A spokesman for the governor did not respond to calls seeking comment about whether the governor's Advisory Ethics Panel would review the Jones bid or make a public determination about its propriety, but did send an email confirming that Degnan and Mroz had been replaced by former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero and Thomas Calcagni, a former Assistant Attorney General, but declined to say when they’d started their roles.

Because of the request for an investigation by the American Democracy Legal Fund, the governor’s Advisory Ethics Panel will again be in the spotlight.

Under the McGreevey executive order that created the panel, “if a question is raised with regard to the propriety of the conduct of the Governor, and the Advisory Ethics Panel was not consulted by the Chief Counsel or the Ethics Liaison Officer prior to the Governor engaging in such conduct, the Panel shall have the discretion to review the question and to issue a public determination.

“In such circumstances, if the Panel finds that the Governor's actions were in violation of the Code of Conduct for the Governor, the Panel shall have the power to impose monetary penalties.”

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