Christie officials push back in aid-for-development flap

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TRENTON, N.J. -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration is pushing back against a claim that Superstorm Sandy relief funding was withheld from a severely flooded city because its Democratic mayor wouldn't sign off on a politically connected real estate venture.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno strongly denied Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer's claims as "false" and "illogical" on Monday, the day before Mr. Christie's second-term inauguration. And Marc Ferzan, executive director of the Governor's Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, told reporters in a conference call that Hoboken has been treated no differently than other cities with respect to storm relief funds.

Ms. Zimmer said Saturday that Ms. Guadagno pulled her aside at a supermarket opening in May and said Hoboken's storm recovery funds hinged on the mayor's approval of a commercial development whose lawyer and lobbyist are close to the governor. On Sunday, Ms. Zimmer told CNN that the ultimatum was delivered on behalf of the governor, a possible 2016 presidential candidate.

Ms. Guadagno said the mayor's description of the conversation "is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined. Any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false," she said. The lieutenant governor did not take questions Monday.

Community Affairs commissioner Richard Constable, a member of Mr. Christie's Cabinet and a second official who Ms. Zimmer said repeated the Sandy threat at a separate event in May, also issued a statement denying the mayor's claims. "Mayor Zimmer's allegations are patently false and absurd on their face," he said through a spokeswoman.

Ms. Zimmer met for several hours Sunday with investigators from the U.S. attorney's office and gave them journal entries she said were made at the time of the conversation. She also has offered to take a lie-detector test or testify under oath.

Superstorm Sandy, which was spawned in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems, killed people in 10 states, but New Jersey and New York were hit the hardest. It was New Jersey's worst natural disaster.

Mr. Ferzan, during his conference call, said claims that Hoboken received less than its fair share of disaster aid were a "mischaracterization." He said the state has received more than $14 billion in requests statewide for Hazard Mitigation grants but has only about $300 million to disburse. Christie administration officials have said Hoboken has requested more than $100 million in such funding. "Obviously $300 million versus $14 billion, that's a big delta," he said.

The state has tried to prioritize its funding and programs to address the "communities most in need," Mr. Ferzan said, and purposely directed most recovery funding toward homeowners, business owners and renters.

Federal authorities and state legislators are investigating another scandal involving the Christie administration -- allegations that the governor's top aides orchestrated traffic jams in Fort Lee by blocking off lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which connects to New York City, possibly to punish the town's Democratic mayor for not endorsing the governor for re-election.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a former state Democratic Party chairman who is leading a legislative probe, said the new allegations may be part of a pattern of abuses of power in the Christie administration and would be treated seriously. Republicans called the investigation partisan and called upon Mr. Wisniewski to step down. Mr. Wisniewski said the investigation by his bipartisan panel would continue.

Carl Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field, appeared to buttress the Democrats' concerns, saying he also had experienced retribution from the governor's office. Mr. Lewis said Mr. Christie dropped a plan to appoint him as the state's first physical fitness ambassador when he launched a political campaign against a Christie friend.

Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, said Mr. Christie called personally to dissuade him from entering the 2011 state Senate race. Mr. Lewis withdrew from the Senate race after a court ruled that he didn't meet a residency requirement. "The governor put his people together to get me out of the race," said Mr. Lewis, who now lives in Houston.

The Christie administration didn't immediately return an email message seeking comment on what Mr. Lewis said.


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