Members of the SUNY Maritime Academy aid in the relief efforts using row boats to help victims from Hurricane Sandy October 31, 2012 in Hoboken, New Jersey. (Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)
William M. Welch, USA TODAY
The mayor of Hoboken, N.J., says she was told by top officials in Gov. Chris Christie's administration that she would have to go along with a private development project the governor wanted in order for her city to receive Hurricane Sandy relief money.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat who had previously supported Christie, a Republican, made the allegation Saturday on MSNBC.
She named Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Richard Constable, Christie's community affairs commissioner, as the two officials who delivered messages on behalf of the governor, who has seen his 2016 GOP presidential prospects threatened by a growing scandal over allegations aides engineered a traffic tie-up on the George Washington Bridge to settle a score with the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee.
"The bottom line is, it's not fair for the governor to hold Sandy funds hostage for the City of Hoboken because he wants me to give back to one private developer," she said on the program UP w/ Steve Kornacki. "... I know it's very complicated for the public to really understand all of this, but I have a legal obligation to follow the law, to bring balanced development to Hoboken."
Spokespeople for Constable and Christie denied the claim, the cable network reported.
The allegation comes as Christie heads to Florida this weekend to woo Republican donors as well as test his own political resiliency to the scandal. Christie, the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is to appear at several fundraisers for Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the RGA, which will defend 20 GOP incumbents this year.
Zimmer told a somewhat different story to public radio earlier this month. In a report Jan. 10, WNYC.org quoted Zimmer as saying she wondered if her decision not to endorse Christie's re-election played a role in the small amount of Sandy aid her city received.
"With 20/20 hindsight, in the context we're in right now, we can always look back and say, 'Okay, was it retribution?'" Zimmer said. "I think probably all mayors are reflecting right now and thinking about it, but I really hope that that's not the case."
On the MSNBC program Saturday, Zimmer said Guadagno pulled her aside during an event in Hoboken in May and made the connection explicit, NJ.com reported.
Zimmer's own recollection recorded in her diary was quoted on the program: "She pulls me aside and says that I need to move forward with the Rockefeller project. It's very important to the governor. 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. 'If you tell anyone I said it, I will deny it.'"
The development project involves a 19-block area that is one of the city's last undeveloped properties.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak disputed Zimmer's claim: "Mayor Zimmer has been effusive in her public praise of the Governor's Office and the assistance we've provided in terms of economic development and Sandy aid," Drewniak said in a statement to MSNBC. "What or who is driving her only now to say such outlandishly false things is anyone's guess."
A key Democratic legislator investigating the Fort Lee traffic scandal, New Jersey Assembly Select Committee on Investigations Chairman John Wisniewski, said in a statement that Zimmer's allegations "are serious and yet again raise concern about abuse of government power'.''
Zimmer stood by her charge, offering to take a lie-detector test.
"I'd be more than willing to testify under oath and - and answer any questions and provide any documents, take a lie detector test," Zimmer said. "And, you know, my question back to them is, 'Would all of you? Would all of you be willing do that same thing, to testify under oath, to take a lie detector test?'"
At the time, the Christie administration was distributing Hurricane Sandy recovery funds. Zimmer had requested $100 million for Hoboken, which was devasted by the storm. The city received $342,000.
New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone said on the same program that Zimmer's accusations suggest an "abuse of power" by the Christie administration. "This is something that the U.S. attorney should be looking at, and has to be further investigated," he said.
Zimmer said making the accusations was "one of the hardest things I've ever done," but said it was "not fair for the governor to hold Sandy funds hostage for the city of Hoboken."
"I cannot give a windfall to one property owner because the governor wants me to in exchange for Sandy funds," Zimmer said.
Christie spokesman Colin Reed denounced the report and called MSNBC "openly hostile'' to Christie, the Asbury Park Press reported.
"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 dollars in federal aid and is targeted to get even more when the Obama administration approves the next rounds of funding," Reed said.
"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," Reed said.