The mayor of Hoboken, N.J., says it was pure intimidation by Gov. Chris Christie's top people, delivered in softly-worded asides at public events: Get on board with a big development deal or say goodbye to hopes of Superstorm Sandy relief money.
"'This project is really important to the governor,'" Mayor Dawn Zimmer said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, recounting what she said she was told in May by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. "And she said that ... this was a direct message from the governor."
On Monday, the Christie administration, which has replied mostly apologetically to a controversy that began with the uproar over September's closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, swung back hard against Zimmer's account, starting with an indignant statement from Guadagno.
"Any suggestion, any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false," Guadagno said.
Later, the state's Sandy recovery czar and a Christie spokesman told reporters that Hoboken, its residents and businesses received their fair share of federal aid money — $70 million in all.
Zimmer said New Jersey's Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable also approached her later that month and told her Sandy aid "would start flowing" if she backed the development plan. A spokesperson for Constable said the charge was false.
Zimmer said Hoboken asked for $100 million in state help but received approximately $300,000, a figure she called unfair.
Marc Ferzan, executive director of the governor's Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said he was "scratching my head a little bit" about Zimmer's claims. Figures released by the governor's office said that there were billions in requests for a pool of $100 million available for future flood mitigation efforts.
The latest blowup has cast a cloud over what was supposed to be a moment of triumph for Christie: his Tuesday inauguration for a second term, following a reelection cakewalk in a Democratic state and excited predictions from the GOP about his future as a presidential candidate. A new national poll found the scandal had dented Christie's image for blunt honesty: Nearly 6 in 10 Americans don't believe his avowals that he found out only recently that his aides had caused a four-day traffic jam.
The latest charges, first reported by MSNBC, concern a major development deal proposed for the north end of Hoboken, a small city less than two miles square just across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. The Rockefeller Group had ambitions to build a 40-story office tower on mostly blighted land on the north end of Hoboken.
The company's law firm was Wolff & Samson, a founder of which was former New Jersey Atty. Gen. David Samson, named by Christie as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The authority paid for a study that found just a small part of the land was right for redevelopment — including parcels controlled by the Rockefeller Group. But the city's planning board voted against the plans in May. Samson and the company did not respond to requests for comment.
Not long after the board rejected the plans, Zimmer said Guadagno pulled her aside at a reopening ceremony for a supermarket that was wrecked by the storm.
On Sunday, Zimmer met with the U.S. attorney's office and turned over what she said was a journal with her notes taken at the time.
Zimmer wrote that she was teary-eyed that Christie turned out to be "cut from the same corrupt cloth that I have been fighting for the last 4 yr." (Zimmer originally wrote 3, but crossed it out.)
Until now, Zimmer had been effusive in her praise for Christie; three months after the events she described, she tweeted that she was "so glad he is governor of New Jersey."
CNN reported that Zimmer had changed her account from an earlier interview about the Sandy recovery funds. "I don't think it was retaliation, and I don't have any reason to think it's retaliation, but I'm not satisfied with the amount of money I've gotten so far," Zimmer told CNN last week.
On Sunday, Zimmer said she had been worried earlier that no one would believe her. "It's outrageous, but it's true and I stand by my word," she said.
Guadagno, speaking at a Monday event in Union Beach, said she had visited Hoboken 13 times and that Zimmer enlisted her help for another waterfront development. She did not take questions.
"I thought I had a good relationship with the mayor of Hoboken," Guadagno added. "In fact, three months after this conversation she says we had occurred, I was walking on the streets with her in Hoboken talking about urban markets."
Last week, an investigative committee issued 20 subpoenas for records to top officials in Christie's administration, including Samson, seeking a year's worth of documents related to the decision to shut down the bridge approach lanes last fall. Emails already obtained show Christie aides reveling in the massive traffic jams in Fort Lee and the difficulty it was causing the borough's mayor, who had not endorsed Christie's bid for reelection.
Following the bridge scandal, other charges of political intimidation surfaced. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat, said meetings with Christie staffers were abruptly canceled after he rebuffed overtures from the campaign.
Federal auditors also are looking into Christie's use of federal funds for the state's "Stronger than the Storm" tourism sales campaign for ads that featured Christie and his family. A New Jersey congressman who asked for the investigation said the winning proposal was more expensive than others, but the firm, defending its work, said it offered more services and did not initially propose using Christie in the ads.
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