Chris Christie’s Rep

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie finds himself trapped in a weird and growing scandal. It’s a huge potential problem for a man who apparently entertains visions of a run for the presidency, because the scandal goes to the very core of Christie’s reputation.

The scandal involves communications by a member of Christie’s staff in which she apparently instructed that two lanes on the George Washington Bridge that links New Jersey and New York City to be closed for no reason other than to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had not supported Christie’s recent reelection campaign. The unnecessary closures caused four days of gridlock in Fort Lee and around the bridge and lots of anguish for travelers trapped in a commuting hell traffic snarl. There are apparently no emails or texts showing the Christie himself was directly aware of the decision to close the lanes to exact some political retribution, and in fact he denies knowledge of the actions and criticized the staffers once the communications were disclosed.

In New Jersey — a state that many associate with a highway, the New Jersey Turnpike — commuting, lane closures, and passages to New York City are serious stuff. But this grotesque misuse of power involves much higher stakes for Christie because it undercuts his image. Outside of New Jersey, he has a reputation as a kind of pragmatic populist — a bluff, plain-talking everyman who will get the job done for the people of his state, even if it means standing up to entrenched interests like teachers unions or enduring the criticism of the conservative wing of his own party. There is nothing pragmatic or populist about causing unnecessary angst and delays for New Jersey commuters to achieve some kind of cheap political payback, however. Indeed, it’s exactly the kind of stupid political stunt that you can imagine Christie blasting with his customary bluntness.

It remains to be seen whether there is evidence that Christie had any involvement in this incident, and his personal response to the incident and related investigation will tell a lot about its likely impact on his career. For now, the incident looks like it could be as permanently damaging for Christie’s rep as the disastrous rollout of the healthcare.gov website has been to President Obama’s carefully cultivated image for cool competence. The difference is that President Obama isn’t going to be running for President in 2016.

“Waste, Fraud, And Abuse” And The New Jersey Turnpike

Come election time we hear politicians say they plan to balance governmental budgets by getting rid of waste, fraud, and abuse.  That comment always seems like a dodge to allow the candidate to avoid talking about tough budget choices — and then you run across a story like this.

It turns out that a recent audit of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority identified $43 million in wasteful payments for employee perks and bonuses.  The payments included $30 million in unjustified bonuses to management and employees without regard to performance, an employee bowling league, employee bonuses for working on their birthdays, and free E-Z pass transponders, and cash out payments for unused sick days and vacation days.  One employee with a base salary of $73,469 earned $321,985 when all payouts and bonuses were included.  All of this happened as tolls were being increased.

These kinds of stories are maddening.  They confirm our belief that some of our hard-earned tax dollars are being wasted, but they also indicate that agency administrators and legislators are abysmal failures in exercising appropriate oversight.  That result shouldn’t be surprising.  Digging into the actual uses to which tax dollars are being put is hard work, and most of our legislators aren’t nose-to-the-grindstone types who have any interest in getting into the details.  Perhaps it is time to change that?