PHILADELPHIA (AP) – The embattled Delaware River Port Authority came under renewed fire at a legislative hearing Wednesday over its hiring, spending and transparency practices.

Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee asked leaders of the two-state agency about how it came to spend millions on economic development projects, as well as details of a policy that has allowed employees skip the tolls on bridges it controls.

The executives described recent changes that they said have improved operations at the 900-employee agency, but Sen. Jane Earll, R-Erie, indicated she was not impressed. She singled out the agency’s spending on outside attorneys despite having five of them on their payroll.

“It’s almost akin, in my mind, to locking the barn door after all the animals have left,” Earll said during comments by chief executive John Matheussen and board chairman John Estey.

Other topics included patronage hiring, the DRPA’s Byzantine governing structure, letting employees go to work for contractors immediately upon leaving the authority and executive pay that can include thousands annually for a vehicle allowance and unused sick time.

“I plan to have the legislatures on both sides of the river work very closely with the federal government and have more oversight,” committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, told reporters midway through the daylong hearing. He said the authority needed to be more accountable to the public.

“Somebody has to eventually stand up to say, ‘I’m in charge of this organization,”‘ Rafferty said.

The authority, with roots in the 1930s, manages several bridges across the Delaware River, as well as the Port Authority Transit Corp. trains that link Lindenwold, N.J., with Philadelphia. Most members of the 16-person board are appointed by the governors of the two states, and recently Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has exercised his veto power to force agency reforms.

Since the compact between Pennsylvania and New Jersey was last amended in 1992, the agency has spent about $400 million — most of it borrowed money — on a range of economic development projects in the region, largely controlled by the two states’ governors.

They include a performing arts center, sports stadiums and an aquarium, but such activities were stopped during a special board meeting last month. Also last month, the board voted to prohibit themselves and agency employees from receiving gifts and required them to avoid any appearance of undue influence.

One issue that has attracted scrutiny is the so-called “true-up” provisions concerning two insurance carriers, one from each state. The true-up agreement was described by Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord — an ex-officio board member of DRPA — as a way for the brokers to split up the commissions, no matter who performs the work.

McCord said that last year one company paid the other $64,000 to “true up” the difference between the commissions they had received. The board voted Aug. 25 to hire an outside investigator to look into the matter, but Christie vetoed it, saying the New Jersey comptroller could perform the review at less cost.

“We want to make sure this thing isn’t just brushed away,” McCord said.

Stung by news accounts of misuse of free-passage privileges, the agency ended them. But it now finds itself looking for a way that employees can avoid tolls while at work, and to accommodate union contracts that included some free-passage provisions.

Tolls increased in September 2008 and are expected to go up again next year, after which they will rise with inflation. The DRPA’s total debt is currently about $1.4 billion, of which about $300 million went for economic development projects.

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