Governor Christie's NJ woes dog Florida fundraising trip

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New Jersey mayor who added to Governor Chris Christie's woes with fresh claims that his office punishes uncooperative local officials stuck to her story on Sunday, overshadowing the governor's fundraising trip in Florida.

Widely seen as a Republican contender for the White House in 2016, Christie avoided mention of his troubles at home while he raises funds on a closely watched trip to Florida this weekend.

His office dismissed as false claims by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that he sent his deputy to tell her she risked not getting requested funds for Superstorm Sandy relief unless she backed a redevelopment project in her city.

But Zimmer stuck to her story on Sunday that two state officials, including Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, told her Christie would withhold funding if Zimmer did not support a bid by the New York-based Rockefeller Group to build on several blocks in the city.

"She came and made a direct threat to me," Zimmer told CNN television, describing a conversation she had with Guadagno in a parking lot shortly before an event in Hoboken in May. "I'm offering to testify under oath."

Zimmer says she has only received a fraction of the $127 million in relief funds she requested for Hoboken, a city just across the Hudson River from Manhattan that was badly flooded by Sandy in late 2012.

"The lieutenant governor said, essentially: 'You've got to move forward with the Rockefeller project,'" Zimmer said on Sunday. "She said this is a direct message from the governor: 'I was with him on Friday night.'"

Christie is in Florida this weekend to raise money for Republican Governor Rick Scott, on a trip viewed as a test of donor confidence in a potential presidential bid in 2016.

It is his first political trip since his office was engulfed by scandal this month after it emerged that some of his closest aides orchestrated chaotic traffic jams in the city of Fort Lee by closing lanes on the busy George Washington Bridge linking New Jersey and New York City.

So far, Christie has largely avoided speaking with news reporters in Florida. Reporters were kept on the highway outside and out of view of the Country Club of Orlando while Christie joined Scott at a benefit lunch there on Saturday. Attendees told reporters Christie did not speak about the allegations he is facing in New Jersey.

BRIDGE CLOSURES

The bridge closures appeared to be retribution against Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, who declined to endorse Christie for re-election. Christie said he did not know of his aides' plans, and fired two of the aides after their role in the closures emerged.

Federal prosecutors and both chambers of the state legislature are now investigating what happened. Nearly two dozen New Jersey officials, including much of Christie's inner circle, were served with subpoenas on Friday over the lane closures.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat leading one of the investigations, said on Sunday that Zimmer was a "well-respected" mayor and that her claims need to be examined.

"I think we have to give the allegations serious thought because it is a pattern that we've heard time and time again throughout New Jersey," he said in an interview with NBC television. "I think the committee needs to look at the facts, hear her story, look at the emails and consider where we go next."

Federal officials are also reviewing Christie's use of about $2 million in storm 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.

Zimmer's accusations were the third blow to Christie in two weeks.

A Christie spokesman disputed the mayor's account.

"Mayor Zimmer's categorization about her conversation in Hoboken is categorically false," Colin Reed, the spokesman, said in an email. He declined to answer further questions about what Guadagno and Zimmer actually discussed, and said the lieutenant governor was not available for an interview.

Reed said Zimmer and other Democratic mayors had a "political ax to grind" and only wanted a chance to be on television.

The mayor and the governor's office have wildly diverging accounts about how much funding has been given to Hoboken. Reed said Hoboken has received about $70 million, including about $50 million from various Federal Emergency Management Agency programs.

Zimmer said that number was misleading, and was mostly made up of payouts on residents' and businesses' insurance policies.

"We got just a little bit more than $300,000," Zimmer said. "They're playing games with the numbers, and it's a deflection."

(Additional reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Jonathan Oatis)

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