By Victoria Cavaliere and Edith Honan
Jan 18 (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose administration is facing allegations about abusing its power, came under fire again on Saturday when a local mayor said she was denied storm relief money because she would not back a development deal pushed by people close to the governor.
The claim by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was the latest in a string of accusations made by Democratic lawmakers aimed at top aides to Christie - a Republican Party star and a likely candidate for the White House in 2016.
A spokesman for Christie called Zimmer’s claims “categorically false.” But the charge added to a mounting list of problems facing the charismatic Republican.
The Christie administration is facing investigations by federal prosecutors and both houses of the state legislature for its role in massive traffic jams over four days in September near the busy George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and Manhattan.
The closures in the borough of Fort Lee, which delayed commuters and slowed school buses and emergency vehicles, appears to have been orchestrated as punishment for its Democratic mayor who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election.
There is no evidence Christie had direct knowledge of any scheme, and he has described himself as blindsided and heartbroken by the actions of some of his top aides, two of whom have been dismissed for their roles in the lane closures.
Federal officials are also reviewing Christie’s use of about $2 million in Superstorm Sandy relief funds for a tourism campaign that features him and his family. New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone requested the probe, saying he was concerned about the bidding process for the marketing campaign.
“A PRODUCTIVE RELATIONSHIP”
The city of Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was largely flooded when Sandy crashed into the state in late 2012. But Zimmer told MSNBC television on Saturday that Hoboken has received only a small part of the $127 million in recovery money it requested after the storm.
She said two of Christie’s aides told her the money would be delayed unless she approved a redevelopment project championed by people close to Christie.
“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,” Zimmer, elected in 2009, said Saturday on “Up With Steve Kornacki.”
Christie’s office released a series of tweets by Zimmer, in which she praised the governor for his response during Sandy. Another tweet by Zimmer in August 2013 said: “To be clear I am very glad Governor Christie has been our Gov.”
“The governor and Mayor Zimmer have had a productive relationship,” said Colin Reed, a Christie spokesman. “It’s very clear partisan politics are at play here as Democratic mayors with a political axe to grind come out of the woodwork.”
The two New Jersey lawmakers leading the separate probes into the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal released statements Saturday saying the accusations made by Zimmer raise new questions about abuse of power by the Christie administration.
Both state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, whose district includes Fort Lee where traffic was snarled, and New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski said they were going to pursue all relevant facts in Zimmer’s claims.
“This is a serious allegation that, if true, reveals another abuse of power by the administration,” Weinberg said.
Nearly two dozen New Jersey officials, including much of Christie’s inner circle, were served with subpoenas on Friday in connection to the lane closures.
Zimmer told MSNBC she had not come forward with her allegations against the governor’s office earlier because she was trying to protect the residents of Hoboken.
She said was approached by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Richard Constable, Christie’s community affairs commissioner, in May 2013 and told she needed to move ahead with a redevelopment project awarded to the Rockefeller Group, a New York developer, to revamp a stretch of Hoboken, which is across the river from Manhattan.
Zimmer said Constable told her, “If you move that forward, the money would start flowing to you.”
Zimmer said Guadagno told her “I know it’s not right. I know these things should not be connected but they are.”
Constable’s office adamantly dismissed Zimmer’s claims.
A spokesman for the Rockefeller Group said the company had no knowledge of Zimmer’s claims and that it “had not filed any development applications for review or approval,” he said.
Zimmer said Hoboken has seen little Sandy recovery money, limited to $142,000 for a backup generator plus $200,000 in recovery grants.
Christie’s office said Hoboken was due nearly $70 million in still unreleased federal aid and had received more than $6 million.
Christie is in Florida this weekend for fundraisers for Republican Governor Rick Scott. It is Christie’s first political trip since the bridge scandal and is viewed as a test of donor confidence in his potential presidential bid in 2016.