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Seaway administrator rides rough seas

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WASHINGTON — For a job that’s often lost in obscurity, the top slot at the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. has suddenly become splashy for Collister W. Johnson Jr.

Mr. Johnson, the Department of Transportation’s last leftover appointee from the George W. Bush administration, said he has faced “petty harassment” on the job — including finding his office door locked — in the year or so since he resisted the Obama administration’s pressure to resign before his seven-year term expires in October 2013.

He is not sure how long he’ll be in the job, Mr. Johnson said Tuesday.

The story was first reported by Great Lakes-Seaway News, a daily online journal of the inland waterway, which interviewed Mr. Johnson in December.

The trouble began, Mr. Johnson said, when Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari pressured him to resign. He refused, he said, accused the department of politicizing the Seaway agency and challenged officials to secure a letter from President Barack Obama requesting his resignation.

Such a letter never appeared.

That was when work life became more difficult, Mr. Johnson reported.

“They failed in that effort, and instead of accepting defeat gracefully, they have resorted to ongoing, petty harassment, such as locking the door to my office,” Mr. Johnson told GLSN. “With all the problems DOT currently has with senior management, one would think they have better things to do with their time than hassling me.”

That interview was published in early December. Since then, Mr. Johnson said, the atmosphere is “about the same.”

A spokeswoman for the DOT, Meghan Keck, said in a statement, “As an agency led by a Republican under a Democratic administration, the Department of Transportation is fully committed to the importance of bipartisan cooperation at all levels.”

In the interview, Mr. Johnson cast his effort to keep the Seaway from becoming politicized as perhaps his greatest contribution to the agency.

Mr. Johnson told GLSN that the Seaway agency has always run in a nonpartisan fashion.

That is not to say that politics and the administrator’s office never mix. The administrator is a political appointee, after all, and one of Mr. Johnson’s qualifications — aside from some experience in shipping in Hampton Roads, Va., — was that he was Mr. Bush’s roommate in college.

His predecessor, Albert S. Jacquez, was chief of staff to a Democratic congressman from California before being tapped by President Bill Clinton, also a Democrat. He ended up serving through several years of Mr. Bush’s tenure; the secretary of transportation then, Norman Y. Mineta, was a Democratic holdover from Mr. Clinton’s term.

The Transportation Department does not have a particularly partisan reputation. The secretary, Ray LaHood, is a moderate Republican whom Mr. Obama picked from Congress.

But the position is also somewhat unusual in that the seven-year term was designed to keep the agency out of the typical cycle of housecleaning when the White House changes hands.

Asked Tuesday why he decided to share the situation publicly, Mr. Johnson said, “Why not, if it’s true?”

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