The mayor of Hoboken on Saturday accused two top officials in the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) of threatening to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid from the hard-hit city unless she supported a development project backed by the governor.
The accusation came first in an interview on the MSNBC program “Up With Steve Kornacki” and was immediately denied by a Christie spokesman.
But it is likely to generate new and potentially damaging questions for the probable 2016 presidential contender, in the wake of allegations that other Christie aides engineered a traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J., possibly as retaliation for the Democratic mayor’s refusal to endorse the governor’s reelection campaign last year.
An allegation that Christie aides held desperately needed money hostage to other political concerns could also serve to undermine Christie’s widely praised handling of the devastating storm.
Hoboken faced devastating flooding from the Hudson River after the storm; at one point, 80 percent of the city was under water.
“It’s outrageous that they would connect Sandy aid to one particular project,” Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s outrageous, and it’s so disappointing when you think about everything that Hoboken has gone through.”
Zimmer said she was twice told in person that her city needed to approve the development project in order to receive funding it had requested for post-storm rebuilding projects.
She said the message was first conveyed by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on May 13, five days after Hoboken’s planning board had rejected the recommendations of a study that would have assisted the development project.
She said Guadagno pulled her aside after touring a ShopRite that had been rebuilt after the storm and told her the two issues were linked.
Zimmer provided MSNBC with an entry from her personal diary in which she recounted the incident.
“It is very important to the governor,” the diary describes Guadagno as saying of the development project. “The word is that you are against it, and you need to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you. I know it’s not right — these things should not be connected — but they are, she says, and if you tell anyone, I will deny it.”
Zimmer said she was given the same message four days later by Richard Constable, Christie’s community affairs commissioner. As the two prepared to appear on a television program about Sandy recovery, she said Constable told her she needed to support the project for her city to receive aid.
“If you move that forward, the money would start flowing to you,’” Zimmer wrote that Constable said.
MSNBC released photographs of the diary entries, written in scrawling pen in the pages of a spiral-bound notebook. Some passages of the entry in question were redacted.
Zimmer said she has kept a journal since she was a child, periodically writing about important events in her life. She said she wrote about her encounters with the Christie officials in one entry on May 17, the day after her encounter with Constable, when she found time while attending a U.N. event in Geneva.
The two officials both denied those accounts to MSNBC through spokesmen, and a Christie spokesman called it “outlandishly false,” noting that Zimmer has previously voiced support for Christie’s efforts to secure Sandy aid.
Christie spokesman Colin Reed said the governor has been active in getting Hoboken the help it needs.
“The Governor and Mayor Zimmer have had a productive relationship, with Mayor Zimmer even recently saying she’s ‘very glad’ he’s been our Governor. It’s very clear partisan politics are at play here as Democratic mayors with a political axe to grind come out of the woodwork and try to get their faces on television,” he said, noting that the revelations were first made on MSNBC, where much of the programming is liberal-leaning.
Zimmer said she is not surprised by the denials — after all, she said, Guadagno had specifically said she would deny the allegation if Zimmer put it forward.
“I’m more than happy to testify under oath,” she said. “I’m more than happy to take a lie detector test. I’m more than happy to provide any documents that are asked of me.”
Since the Fort Lee situation has captured national attention, Zimmer has been outspoken in suggesting that the denial of the bulk of her city’s request for recovery money may have been politically motivated. She has said Christie personally asked for her endorsement in February, which she declined to provide.
Hoboken requested $127 million in aid to initiate projects to prevent flooding from the Hudson River during future storms.
State officials, who administered the dispersal of federal funds, approved a tiny fraction, $142,000 — less than the cost of one new generator. The city also received $200,000 from a separate pot of $1.8 billion to rebuild in the wake of Sandy, again a small fraction of its request.
But Hoboken’s request also represented more than a third of the total $300 million made available to the entire state, and Zimmer has in the past tweeted about her support for Christie’s relief efforts.
Zimmer said she kept quiet for months, in part because another round of federal Sandy aid has yet to be disbursed.
“I probably should have come forward then,” she said. “This was a really hard thing to do, and the events over the last few weeks have provided more insight into how the governor’s office works. I felt like I had to come forward.”
E-mails and other documents from Hoboken show that in the same months that Sandy aid was under consideration, Hoboken officials were under considerable pressure to approve the proposal from the New York-based Rockefeller Group to develop a stretch of the city.
To lobby on its behalf, the Rockefeller Group had hired the politically influential law firm Wolff and Samson, which is run by Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a Christie ally.
A Wolff and Samson lobbyist working on behalf of the project was Lori Grifa, a former Christie aide who had also worked with the city on the project in the governor’s office.
In one April e-mail, Grifa wrote to an attorney working for Hoboken to say that she wanted to set up a conference call between the two of them and Samson to discuss the project. The attorney then wrote to a city official seeking more information about he project, indicating that he was getting a “full court press” on the issue.
In a statement, Grifa and Wolff & Samson said the firm’s representation of the development was “appropriate in all respects” and that they “categorically deny” allegations from Zimmer that suggested otherwise.
A spokesman for the Rockefeller Group said in a statement that project leaders had no knowledge of the allegation and stressed that the Hoboken project is still in its planning stages.
“If it turns out to be true, it would be deplorable,” the spokesman said in the statement.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D), who is chairing the New Jersey committee investigating the bridge matter, said in a statement that Zimmer’s allegations have “attracted our attention.”
“We need to obtain all relevant facts, confer with our special counsel and determine the committee’s best course of action,” he said.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D) called them “explosive.”
“Using Sandy Hurricane relief money to advance a private project which members of the administration are representing as its attorney?” he said. “That’s as serious an allegation as one could possibly make.”