Lawmaker says battleship review request not sour grapes
By ARON PILHOFER and CAROL COMEGNO
U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez said Tuesday his request for a review by the General Accounting Office and Department of Defense of the decision to put the USS New Jersey in Camden is not a case of sour grapes.
``If you are in a fair fight and you lose fine,'' said Menendez, a Democrat whose district includes Bayonne. ``If you are in a fight in which someone is throwing some illegal punches and you lose, you feel the decision was unfair.''
He said he believes the Navy may have violated its own regulations and possibly federal law when it passed over Bayonne in favor of the Camden Waterfront as a permanent berth for the battleship.
On Monday, Rep. Marge Roukema, a Bergen County Republican, sent a letter to the GAO asking for a review of the Navy's decision. The Navy announced Jan. 20 it had chosen to retire the battleship at Camden's Waterfront, where it will be turned into a floating museum. The Navy later said Camden was the unanimous choice of its 10-member review panel.
Roukema made no specific allegations about the Navy review process. But Menendez said his information, if true, suggests the Navy gave Camden an unfair leg up in the decision-making process by allowing the application to go beyond the stated guidelines.
``I have many citizens who believe the appropriate site is Bayonne, and while that may be true, I don't think that alone would give sufficient rise to question the decision of the Navy,'' Menendez said. ``But I don't believe that questioning a process you think is unfair, to make sure that process had integrity, is sour grapes.''
He refused to spell out the specific allegations, but ``if they find what we raise are clear violations ... that affected the outcome negatively for Bayonne, the whole decision should be reviewed.''
State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, one of the key players in the effort to bring the warship to Camden, said the South Jersey effort got no special consideration.
``I know the hoops the Navy made us jump through. There was no slap on the back, no wink of an eye,'' he said. ``I am very certain and very assured this was a fair process. I am comfortable our application will withstand the scrutiny of review, and ... those who just want to play politics with this.''
Matheussen was particularly perturbed by press reports Tuesday that suggested the state Battleship Commission has asked Roukema to request a GAO review. Craig Sherman, the congresswoman's spokesman, said Monday that Roukema wrote the letter at the behest of the commission, which endorsed Bayonne.
But after checking on Tuesday, Sherman said the request came from Bergen County constituents not from the commission.
Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, chairman of the state Battleship Commission, denied Tuesday that he or any other commissioner asked the North Jersey congresswoman to officially appeal the Navy's decision.
``I knew nothing about this until today,'' he said. ``The commission had nothing to do with this request.''
Matheussen said he was relieved to hear that particularly in light of his sometimes frigid relationship with Azzolina since Jan. 20.
Earlier this month, the commission voted to hire a lawyer and sue the Navy over its decision. Gov. Christie Whitman, who has sought to remain neutral on the battleship issue, promptly vetoed that action.
Matheussen met with Azzolina on Monday to discuss the commission's future role in preserving the ship and building a museum along the Camden Waterfront. He said the meeting was positive, and hopes the tug-of-war over the battleship is nearing an end.
``I think it adds to division within the state, and I think it's counterproductive,'' he said.
The requests from Roukema and Menendez come during the 30-day congressional comment period on the Navy's decision. The Navy cannot transfer the ship from its temporary berth in Philadelphia to the Camden Waterfront until the comment period expires in April.
Rita Wilks, a congressional affairs spokeswoman for the Navy at the Pentagon, said Congress has never overturned a Navy ship donation in the 50 years of the program. She declined comment on the request sent to GAO.
Only Congress can overturn the Navy's decision -- an unlikely move because of the widespread congressional support for the Camden site.
Members of Congress from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland voiced their support of Camden and at least two New York City members of Congress, as well as city, state and federal officials, publicly opposed the Bayonne site because it would create competition for the aircraft carrier Intrepid museum in New York Harbor.
Only one ship donation -- the USS Missouri, sister battleship of the USS New Jersey -- has ever been contested. That case, filed in 1998 by a losing applicant from Hawaii, remains in federal court. Congress made no comment on that donation. The Missouri is now in Pearl Harbor near the sunken USS Arizona.