Officials in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration allegedly held Hurricane Sandy recovery funds “hostage” in exchange for expediting a development project, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said Saturday. Zimmer alleged Christie’s lieutenant governor and a top community development official told her recovery funds would flow to her city if she allowed the project to move forward.
She named Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Richard Constable, commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, and Lori Grifa, the former commissioner, during an interview Saturday with MSNBC.
Zimmer said Guadagno pulled her aside at an event in May and told her that Sandy aid was tied to the project — a proposal from the New York City-based Rockefeller Group aimed at prime real estate in the densely populated city across the river from New York.
“I was directly told the by the lieutenant governor — she made it very clear — that the Rockefeller project needed to move forward or they wouldn’t be able to help me,” Zimmer told The Associated Press. “There is no way I could ethically do what the governor, through the lieutenant governor, is asking me to do.”
Zimmer, a Democrat, said she is willing to take a lie detector test or testify under oath about the conversations.
Christie’s office denied Zimmer’s claims. Spokesman Colin Reed said the administration has been helping Hoboken secure assistance since Sandy struck in October 2012.
Zimmer, who first spoke with MSNBC on Saturday, told the cable network that, at another event in May, Constable said “the money would start flowing to you” if she backed the project.
The Hoboken allegations come after more than a year of municipalities and housing advocates voicing frustrations about a lack of transparency and the pace with which Sandy funding has been dispersed.
“I don’t think there is a mayor out there that has had Sandy damage, that is waiting for money to rebuild their towns, that doesn’t feel frustrated in the same way,” said Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini, who added he feels Zimmer’s frustration about the slow trickle of relief funding.
Mancini said he cannot believe that 15 months after the storm the township has received only 15 percent of what was requested in Sandy relief funding.
“I get to the bottom of things, and I can’t get to the bottom of who’s got the money and who’s holding onto it. That’s the most frustrating thing to me as mayor. Where is it? Who has it, and why is it taking so long?” Mancini said.
Long Beach Township requested just less than $10 million and so far has received only $1.5 million, Mancini said.
An additional $10 million in work is needed to fix the infrastructure, but the township cannot begin until $8.5 million comes in from the initial request, he said.
“How much has FEMA released to New Jersey, and how much has New Jersey released to municipalities and counties? Is this a FEMA holdup, state holdup or a combination of both? When will it be released? I’ve asked a million times who’s got the money and no answers,” he said.
The Sandy aid matter is the second time in recent weeks Christie’s administration has been accused of exacting political retribution.
Christie’s chief of staff, chief counsel, chief political strategist and two-time campaign manager all have been subpoenaed for documents related to the September closing of approach lanes near the George Washington Bridge, which led to traffic chaos in the town of Fort Lee in Bergen County.
Twenty new subpoenas issued in that case Friday reach deep into the Christie administration and his re-election campaign, but spare the governor himself.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is reviewing the lane closings, and a legislative panel is investigating who authorized the apparent plot and why.
But Christie’s office called Zimmer’s claims a political move.
“Gov. Christie and his entire administration have been helping Hoboken get the help they need after Sandy,” Reed said. “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.”
Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora, a Republican, said it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democratic town or a Republican town, it seems like no one is getting any money.
Spodofora said he and the township have a good relationship with Christie, but the lack of Sandy funding 15 months after the storm is concerning. Stafford lost more than $200 million in ratables to Sandy.
“It makes it hard right now because we are trying to put a budget together. We have gotten a very small fraction of what was requested. It’s not like it’s just any one town isn’t getting money — it seems like everyone I’m talking to is in the same boat,” Spodofora said.
Spodofora said he doesn’t think Christie would withhold Sandy relief money from Stafford.
Stafford Township Administrator Jim Moran said the municipality has so far received about $350,000 for emergency protection measures, $275,000 for a sewer pump station and smaller amounts totaling about $100,000 for storm relief.
“The state, so far for us, has acted once the projects get obligated, we have received payment. Every municipality in Ocean County is in the same boat. I can’t say we’ve had any issues with the state. Our issues have been entirely with FEMA,” Moran said.
Margate Mayor Mike Becker said his interactions with the Governor’s Office always have been professional despite local disagreements. In November, Margate voters rejected dune-building via referendum.
“As far as Margate and the state, we are trying to resolve our differences,” Becker said. “Hopefully we’ll get to that point soon.”
Zimmer said she is telling her story in hopes that Hoboken receives more assistance in the second wave of relief funding yet to be approved by the federal government for distribution by the state.
In an interview with the AP last month, she voiced concerns about the lack of storm aid to her town. But she expressed hope that the administration would come through in the next round. She did not mention the real estate development in the interview.
Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, said Zimmer’s allegations are “categorically false.”
There were hundreds of potential witnesses to any exchange Zimmer may have had with Constable, Ryan said, adding that Zimmer claimed to be distraught by the encounter but hasn’t spoken about her concerns until now.
“She chose to speak about them on a national news program,” Ryan said. “As far as we know, it hasn’t gone to law enforcement or legal authorities.”
Of the recovery programs the DCA administers that provide money directly to municipalities, Ryan said Hoboken received $200,000 in Post-Sandy Planning Grants and did not apply for the Essential Services Grant Program. The rest of the programs aren’t funneled through municipalities.
“Most of our programs are going to help individuals directly,” she said.
Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management, which oversees hazard mitigation programs, said her office has seen more requests from municipalities planning such projects, but funding is limited by the federal government.
“That’s a reality of hazard mitigation,” she said. “The state has a limited amount of money to work with.”
Information provided Saturday from the state Office of Emergency Management shows more than $6 billion was requested from Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties for about $300 million available in Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money to address the needs of all 21 counties. Goepfert wrote in an email that requests from all 21 counties exceeded $14 billion.
These are amounts requested based on the letters of intent received, where “intent” is based on assessments done very early after the disaster, and those needs tend to change or evolve, Goepfert’s email states.
Atlantic County requested $857,236,218, Ocean County $1,361,389,220 and Cape May County $4,464,231,938.
In recent months, the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center reported racial and economic inequality in the distribution of Sandy aid to individual property owners. Those findings came from data released via a lawsuit the center filed against the Christie administration last year.
“They have done almost everything in secret when they promised to be transparent,” said Kevin Walsh, the center’s associate director. “We don’t know how they were going to spend the infrastructure funds, but it doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Walsh cautioned that the center’s inquiry did not indicate any criminal behavior, but if it did occur, he said, federal investigations need to get to the bottom of it quickly.
“It’s really going to be a problem if something criminal occurred, because it’s going to slow down the rate that people get funding,” he said.
The center found that 38 percent of African Americans and more than 20 percent of Latinos were rejected for Resettlement Program grants, compared with 14.5 percent of Caucasians. Two of the municipalities that saw the greatest impact, Walsh said, were Hoboken and Jersey City.
“We don’t know how to explain some of the irregularities, statistically, that we’ve observed,” he said. “But old-fashioned politics and favoring some over others is one possible explanation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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