Oversight agency tells NJ to get lost in ongoing legal battle over who will control docks

Like a bad marriage breakup, New Jersey – which plans to end its nearly 70-year relationship with New York over the watchdog agency that has long monitored the area’s docks and piers on the waterfront de mer – began work on the division of property.

In a five-page letter, Governor Phil Murphy requests a full account of the ownership, assets, contracts, operations and finances of the New York Harbor Waterfront Commission. The state, which announced it would step down from the commission on March 28, also called for a status of all ongoing criminal investigations involving New Jersey.

But the Waterfront Commission, which has played a major role in organized crime investigations on both sides of the Hudson, answered with a short answer: no.

Murphy’s letter sent to the commission on Feb. 9 was reminiscent of a list sent to a company being acquired during a hostile takeover, demanding a full account of everything from police activities to equipment, laptops, phones and vehicles.

The state also requested all financial data, information on employer assessments in the port used to pay for commission enforcement activities, deeds and mortgages, professional services contracts, stevedore registrations and license applications, and information relating to all ongoing civil and criminal investigations.

Walter Arsenault, chief executive of the Waterfront Commission, refused. He said that given the response from Hochul’s office rejecting the validity of the act that gave legislative approval for New Jersey to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission, “I am not in a position to Comply with any request made for the purpose of facilitating New Jersey’s unilateral withdrawal. ”

His office declined to comment.

Amid the standoff, New York has yet to take any legal action beyond Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office in Albany’s insistence that New Jersey cannot simply decide on its own whether to end the agreement that binds the two states on the regulation of the Port areas of New York Harbor for nearly seven decades.

Neither the commission nor the governor’s office would answer questions about the ongoing battle over the agency, which lost a legal battle for its survival that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The New York governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, New Jersey State Police are already present in New Jersey port areas.

“As required by state law, the New Jersey State Police will assume all powers and duties of the Waterfront Commission in the State of New Jersey on Monday, March 28,” said Michael Zhadanovsky, Murphy’s spokesperson.

Exactly what that means, or the scope of his involvement has yet to be clarified and the governor’s office would not say. A state police spokesperson referred all questions to the governor’s office.

The commission was created in 1953 in response to the deep-rooted corruption then rampant on the docks.

The commission – which includes one member from each state appointed by its governor – has broad jurisdiction over all docks and terminals in the region, including the ports of Newark, Elizabeth, Bayonne, Staten Island and Brooklyn. It certifies that people hired on the waterfront are not connected to organized crime and are otherwise fit to work in the maritime trade, with ultimate discretion over who can work at the docks and in cargo terminals.

However, mounting political pressure in recent years, led by heavy criticism from industry and the dockers’ union, led New Jersey lawmakers to vote in 2018 to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission. They charged the commission of having over-regulated the activities of the port in order to justify its existence and of having harmed the economic interests of the State.

The bill was approved by Gov. Chris Christie in his last week in office, even though he had previously vetoed it on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The commission itself then went to federal court seeking an injunction against the state and Murphy, then-new governor. He argued that New Jersey could not decide on its own that it no longer wanted to honor its obligations under a bilateral pact ratified by Congress.

A federal judge struck down the New Jersey law, ruling that the governor and state legislature could not simply abandon the deal. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the decision. He agreed with the state and concluded that the commission’s lawsuit “infringed upon the sovereignty of the State of New Jersey.”

In November‚ the United States Supreme Court decided that it would not intervene in the case, refusing to hear the the commission’s appeal in the case.

Hochul has yet to say whether New York, which was not involved in the legal battle, will now step in. But in a letter from his attorney’s office recently, the state said New Jersey simply cannot walk away from their partnership.

“In order to effect a dissolution of the commission, the terms of the pact would require New York to pass concurrent legislation,” Elizabeth Fine, Hochul’s attorney, wrote in a letter to Murphy. Noting that New York did not, she said the law passed by New Jersey was “of no effect.”

She also highlighted the commission’s role in state and federal criminal prosecutions in New York and New Jersey.

“Despite the successes of law enforcement, there remains the threat of organized crime and corruption in the port,” Fine wrote. “As noted by the federal law enforcement community, the commission provides invaluable resources and expertise at the intersection of organized crime and port operations.”

Parimal Garg, Murphy’s chief attorney, told New York officials in response that there was no objection to New Jersey’s withdrawal from the Waterfront Commission.

“We agree that the port should be safe, secure, staffed and operated fairly. Neither labor nor industry should be unnecessarily burdened,” Garg wrote to Fine, adding that the Waterfront Commission had “long exceeded its useful purpose.”

Murphy reiterated last week that New Jersey no longer needs the commission, calling today “a completely different world” from when the agency was created.

“It made sense then. That’s not the case now,” Murphy said.

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Ted Sherman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL

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