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Hoboken mayor: 'It's true' Christie administration withheld Sandy funds

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Highlights
  • On CNN, Hoboken mayor says Christie played politics with Sandy recovery funds
  • She says she didn't speak up sooner because she didn't think anyone would believe her
  • Hoboken mayor says she made notes at time of talks
  • Christie team denies funds were held hostage for backing of redevelopment project

By Chris Frates and Cassie Spodak

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said Sunday she didn't speak out earlier about her charges that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie withheld Superstorm Sandy recovery funds because she didn't think anyone would believe her.

Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" one day after she made the allegations on MSNBC, Zimmer said the the allegations are "stunning" and "outrageous," but said they are true.

"I stand by my word," the Hoboken mayor said.

Christie's camp pushed back hard Saturday against Zimmer's allegations that administration officials threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy relief funding unless she supported a redevelopment plan favored by the governor.

Zimmer said on MSNBC on Saturday that members of Christie's administration pressured her to approve the project sought by The Rockefeller Group, a real estate developer with ties to Christie's administration.

MSNBC said its story is based on an interview with Zimmer "and e-mails and personal notes she shared with MSNBC."

In an interview Saturday night with CNN, Zimmer first confirmed that she thought the funds were withheld contingent on her approval of the project. She said she made notes in her journal at the time of the conversation with the officials in Christie's administration.

But in a statement to CNN on Saturday, Christie spokesman Colin Reed blasted the report, saying, "It's very clear partisan politics are at play here as Democratic mayors with a political ax to grind come out of the woodwork and try to get their faces on television."

"MSNBC is a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him," Reed said.

"Governor Christie and his entire administration have been helping Hoboken get the help they need after Sandy, with the city already having been approved for nearly $70 million in federal aid and is targeted to get even more when the Obama administration approves the next rounds of funding. "

Reed said that the mayor and governor have had a "productive relationship," noting an August tweet by Zimmer saying she's "very glad Governor Christie has been our Gov."

Zimmer's comments Saturday and Sunday are a change from what she told CNN just last week, when she said that while she wondered whether Sandy aid funds were being withheld because she didn't endorse the governor's re-election, she concluded that "I don't think that's the case."

"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, not mentioning her concerns about the redevelopment project.

But Sunday morning, Zimmer said there are parallels to the George Washington Bridge scandal: "The Christie administration using their authority to try and get something," she said.

Different takes on parking lot conversation

After Sandy, Hoboken was 80% underwater. Zimmer told CNN last week that Hoboken received only about $300,000 of the roughly $100 million in state funds the city requested for flood prevention. She repeated that figure in her interview with MSNBC.

Reed, Christie's spokesman, told CNN that Zimmer asked for $100 million from a roughly $300 million pot of money for which there was $14 billion worth of requests.

Since that request, Reed said, Hoboken has been approved for nearly $70 million in aid. The city has also been identified as a pilot community for a federal program to prevent flooding, one of only four such projects in New Jersey.

The allegations come as evidence mounts showing that Christie aides were involved in tying up traffic in a town at the foot of the George Washington Bridge in what may have been an act of political retribution against another mayor.

Zimmer told MSNBC host Steve Kornacki that on May 13, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno joined Zimmer at an event in Hoboken highlighting local businesses recovering from Sandy.

Zimmer said Guadagno told her that relief funds for Hoboken would be held hostage until the redevelopment plan was approved.

"She pulled me aside in the parking lot and said, 'I know this is not right, I know these things should not be connected, but they are and if you tell anyone I'll deny it,'" Zimmer said on MSNBC.

CNN received images of journal entries from the Mayor's office that Zimmer told CNN she wrote at the time.

In one, Zimmer writes that the conversation with Guadagno left her upset and shattered the image she had of Christie.

"I thought he was honest, I thought he was moral -- I thought he was something very different. This week I found out he's cut from the same corrupt cloth that I have been fighting for the last four years. I am so disappointed -- it literally brings tears to my eyes," the journal entry says.

Zimmer also wrote that Guadagno told her she needs "to move forward with the Rockefeller project. It is very important to the Gov."

Reed, asked by CNN about Zimmer's comments on Guadagno, said, "Mayor Zimmer's characterization of her conversation in Hoboken is categorically false."

Three days after the purported Guadagno comments, state Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable was on a panel with Zimmer, discussing Sandy relief.

Zimmer told MSNBC that Constable leaned over and told her, "If you move (the redevelopment project) forward, the money would start flowing to you."

In a statement to CNN, Constable spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said, "Mayor Zimmer's allegations that on May 16, 2013, in front a live auditorium audience Commissioner Constable conditioned Hoboken's receipt of Sandy aid on her moving forward with a development project is categorically false."

Debate about redevelopment process

Zimmer told MSNBC she didn't know why the Christie administration was pushing for the plan, although aides and advisers to Christie do have ties to Wolff & Samson, the law firm representing The Rockefeller Group.

Three days before Zimmer was allegedly first approached by Guadagno, the Hoboken Planning Board had rejected a plan for "redevelopment" of The Rockefeller Group property -- instead voting to classify the area as available for "rehabilitation."

The "redevelopment" tax incentives offered a much more lucrative deal for the development company.

Zimmer provided MSNBC with a 2012 e-mail from Wolff & Samson's Lori Grifa to Hoboken's lawyer that shows her lobbying on behalf of the project: "Our client, The Rockefeller Group, has specifically asked us to speak with you regarding its property in Hoboken."

Grifa was previously commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

She is not the only connection between the Christie administration and The Rockefeller Group. The Samson in Wolff & Samson is David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority, who was appointed by Christie. Samson was recently served with a subpoena in the George Washington Bridge case by an investigative committee seeking relevant documents.

The Rockefeller Group told CNN, "We have no knowledge of any information pertaining to this allegation. If it turns out to be true, it would be deplorable."

The law firm, in a statement, said it did nothing wrong: "Wolff & Samson PC and Lori Grifa categorically deny Mayor Zimmer's allegations relating to this firm's role in The Rockefeller Group's redevelopment project in Hoboken. The firm's and Ms. Grifa's conduct in the representation of our client was appropriate in all respects. Further, Ms. Grifa notes that while DCA Commissioner, she never met with Mayor Zimmer or The Rockefeller Group to discuss the Hoboken project."

'I probably should have come forward then'

When MSNBC's Kornacki asked Zimmer why she is airing these allegations now, she told him she fears no money from the recently released $145 million in disaster recovery funds from the federal government will reach Hoboken if she doesn't speak up.

"Well, I probably should have come forward then. This is probably the hardest thing I've ever done," Zimmer said. "We're not going to get it unless I move forward with the Rockefeller plan."

Zimmer went on to say that ethically she cannot approve the redevelopment plan with The Rockefeller Group and that there are fundamental problems with the site in northern Hoboken, including traffic and flooding issues, that would be magnified if the plan were to go forward.

"With the Rockefeller Group, what they want me to do, what the Governor's pressuring me to do, I can't do that. I have no choice but to come forward and share what's happening," Zimmer said on MSNBC.

A spokesperson for The Rockefeller Group told CNN that it still hopes to develop the site under the designation of "rehabilitation," but that this is "contingent on the plan the city comes up with."

As word of the allegations spread Saturday, the chairman of the investigative committee tasked with looking into the George Washington Bridge scandal weighed in.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, told CNN: "This certainly has attracted our attention. We need to obtain all relevant facts, confer with our special counsel and determine the committee's best course of action."

Zimmer told MSNBC, "I'd be more than willing to testify under oath, and answer any questions and provide any documents, take a lie detector test, and my question back to them is, 'Would all of you? Would all of you be willing to do that same thing, to testify under oath? To take a lie detector test?'"

 

Chris Frates is a CNN investigative correspondent.

 

The-CNN-Wire

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