Continuing the shakeout at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced the firing of 71 employees, bring the two-week total to at least 86. The cuts represent about $10 million of the agency’s $161 million annual budget.
Long criticized for a culture of waste, fraud and corruption, the latest move follows a housecleaning that began last month when Christie forced out six of the agency’s seven commissioners over charges that they hired their wives, sons, daughters, in-laws and the politically connected for coveted jobs.
Days later, three supervisors were fired after investigators found they were using agency employees to do repair work and remodeling around their homes and those of friends and relatives. Last week the chief financial officer resigned.
Christie handed over operating control of the PVSC to its executive director Wayne Forrest, a former county prosecutor, while lawmakers line up candidates for eight open commissioner slots.
Besides thinning the employee ranks, Forrest also put a freeze on spending with outside legal firms. Since 2005, the PVSC spent nearly $10 million in fees. The agency also paid more than $500,000 to lobbyists over the last two years. Critics say that there is no need for the commission, which is part of the government itself, to hire representatives to lobby lawmakers.
Investigators are interviewing employees throughout the PVSC, amid new allegations of corruption within the agency. Sources say that taxpayer monies were used for an annual regatta on the Passaic River, and that some employees took the entire summer off.
“The commissioners previously in charge at PVSC perpetuated an endless cycle of misuse of power through unethical hiring practices, gratuitous perks and conflicts of interest, leading to potentially criminal abuses inside the agency,” Christie said at a press conference. “Those days are over.”
Christie has asked that the legislature pass a bill that would give the Governor’s office more control over independent agencies such as the PVSC and other sewer districts throughout the state. “I cannot imagine that the PVSC is the only place in New Jersey where this is happening,” he said.
Last month, The Star-Ledger ran a story detailing abuses and corruption by the sewerage commission in which jobs were routinely given out based on an insider’s-lottery system, similar to the NFL draft. Internal records showed that a formal numbering system was kept, tracking the commissioner next in line to hand out desirable jobs, which in many instances, were given to family members, friends or those politically connected.
The sewerage commission, the largest in the state, covers four counties in northern New Jersey and serves more than 1.5 million people. Before the resignations and firings, the agency employed 567 people, 85 of whom made over $100,000 per year.