Lawmaker seeks probe of decision on fate of 'Big J'
By ARON PILHOFER
Gannett State Bureau
TRENTON - The Navy ignored policy and procedure when it passed over Bayonne in favor of Camden as the permanent berth for the battleship USS New Jersey, a North Jersey congressman charged Friday.
In a letter to the General Accounting Office and the Navy's inspector general, Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., alleged that "political persuasion" and other "irregularities" improperly swayed the Navy's decision.
Menendez called for an investigation Tuesday and followed up with an official complaint Friday. The letter contains a series of allegations that suggest the Navy's decision "was not based on merit."
"If any of these allegations are true, the Navy should immediately rescind its decision to designate Camden, and reconsider Bayonne's application," wrote Menendez, whose district includes Bayonne.
Both the Inspector General's Office and the GAO acknowledged receiving the letter, but declined comment on the specifics. Officials said both departments typically complete investigations in 30 to 90 days.
Retired Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler, executive director of the Home Port Alliance, the South Jersey group behind the Camden application, said the charges are groundless and welcomed the investigation.
"This is something that the congressman and the inspector general and the GAO and whoever else he brings to bear will have to decide," he said. "I feel very confident the submission of the Home Port Alliance was superior in all respects."
Specifically, Menendez alleges:
The Navy failed to alert those behind the Bayonne application about weaknesses or inaccuracies contained in documents they submitted.
The Navy should have given more weight to the high level of community support around the Bayonne site.
The former executive director of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum improperly interfered in the process by testifying against the Bayonne site before a congressional committee.
The state's commitment of $8 million to the successful application "altered the ground rules" for other potential applicants, namely Jersey City, "which would have submitted an application had it been aware of the state's forthcoming assistance."
The Camden site will not draw enough annual visitors to support the ship.
The Home Port Alliance went beyond the Navy's guidelines by submitting a three-part, 1,700-page application as opposed to the single three-ring binder submitted by those behind the Bayonne application. Menendez said Bayonne was "placed at a disadvantage" by adhering to the Navy's guidelines.
But others dispute that, as well as the other accusations.
"Some of the points appear to be quite a stretch," said Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J.
For example, the Navy guide lines given to all applicants state that there is no page limit for applications. All applicants knew the weight the Navy placed on each of the criteria - including community support - before the process began.
Saxton said there was just as much community support for the Camden site from people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, whereas Bayonne was opposed by New York City and New York state officials. Many in New York - including members of Congress, city and state officials - fear another warship-based museum would provide dangerous competition for the aircraft carrier Intrepid, based in Manhattan.
And the Home Port Alliance application included a detailed five-year business plan, which showed there would be more than adequate numbers of annual visitors to support the ship, Seigenthaler said.
Peter McDonough, spokesman for Gov. Christie Whitman, said the governor is satisfied the Navy made "a good faith" decision.
"We don't want to do anything that would hurt the battleship or slow its opening," he said.
Even if there is an investigation, Seigenthaler said, it is not likely to delay anything because there still are a number of bureaucratic and logistical hurdles that must be overcome before the ship can be opened to the public.
Congress can overturn the Navy's decision, but has never done so in the 50 years of the ship donation program, and isn't likely to in this case either, Saxton said, noting that 29 members of Congress from six states wrote to support the Camden site.
"Any open-minded person off the street who visits both the Bayonne site on Upper New York Harbor and the Camden site on the Delaware River will instantly come to the same conclusion the Navy did," he said.