The accusations are flying fast and furious in New Jersey. It’s time to take a deep breath.
By now we have all heard Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s bombshell this weekend that Christie administration officials pressured her to approve a development in her town or Sandy-related aid would be withheld. The most stunning allegation involved Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno making the quid pro quo very clear in a private conversation.
Guadagno denied that she made any such statement. I am not going to rehash all the exact claims, but there is enough doubt on all sides that New Jersey legislators investigating this in a public forum need to proceed with caution for the good of the state.
Mayor Zimmer’s account of her conversation with LG Guadagno was recorded in her diary four days after it happened. Here is how Zimmer reports it: "…at the end of a big tour of Shoprite meeting she pulls me aside with no one else around and says that I need to move forward with the Rockefeller project. It is very important to the Gov. 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. Are other towns being required to develop in exchange for the help with the flooding I asked? [In margins:] 'I know that's not right – these things should not be connected – they r.' She says - if u tell anyone that I will deny it."
Here is part of LG Guadagno’s response today: “Mayor Zimmer’s version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined. Any suggestion – any suggestion – that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false.”
But she also said this: “Frankly, I’m surprised that Mayor Zimmer has chosen to mischaracterize the conversation I had with her about development and job creation in Hoboken.”
Apparently, there was a conversation about development. The problem is that the only two people who have access to “the facts” of that conversation disagree on exactly what was said or at least what was meant.
One of the most interesting aspects of LG Guadagno’s short statement to the press today was how much it reminded me of an attorney addressing a jury during closing arguments. Her inflection changed, she lowered her voice to a near whisper at one point and raised it again with the next point.
Those years as a prosecutor were on display. But in this case, she was on the receiving side of the accusations. And so she did what any good defense lawyer does. She tried to poke holes in the “logic” of the accusation by pointing out that the mayor had asked for the LG’s help with another development and that the LG visited Hoboken with the mayor months after the alleged quid pro quo conversation.
Indeed, LG Guadagno was addressing a jury. But in this case it was in the court of public opinion. Mayor Zimmer says that she did not speak out sooner because she felt she would not be believed. She is probably correct. While the media would certainly have paid attention to these accusations, at the end of the day they are simply “she said, she said.”
Most observers of New Jersey politics would not be surprised to hear that any gubernatorial administration put pressure on a local official to approve a development. This is New Jersey after all. But the blatant quid pro quo tied to disaster aid, and coming from such a high official, may be too much to believe.
Within the context of Bridgegate, though, the public may have become more willing to suspend their disbelief about any charges. And right now the only thing that seems to matter – at least for Gov. Christie’s political future – is whose version of events is more believable.
Of course, these recent charges are more likely to cause Republicans to redouble their own belief that Democrats and the media are on a witch hunt and are similarly more likely to be taken by Democrats as proof positive that the Christie administration is corrupt. It’s the folks in the middle who have been willing to give Christie the benefit of the doubt so far, as shown in last week’s Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll. And more importantly, how does this impacts the national Republican establishment’s assessments of Christie’s prospects as a fundraiser now and a contender in 2016?
The problem for New Jersey is that this just got a lot more serious over the weekend. Speculation about Christie’s political future because of the actions of his staff is now overshadowed by a significant allegation – key word being “allegation” – that has been linked to the governor himself. LG Guadagno’s focus on undercutting the “logic” of Mayor Zimmer’s claims shows that the Christie administration understands that it is fighting this battle in the court of public opinion as much as in any official inquiry.
The legislature’s investigation into Bridgegate has been based on a pretty clear-cut chain of evidence that some officials did something wrong. The Sandy recovery aid charges are based on the allegations of one person, albeit a known public official, without any obvious way to corroborate those charges.
The Senate committee investigating the bridge situation is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and is likely to fold these new charges into their inquiry. The public deserves to have a full and fair hearing on both Bridgegate and these new accusations. However, the new charges lack a clear chain of evidence at this point for any official investigation to suggest where they may lead. The committee – both Democrats and Republicans – need to tread carefully.
It will not serve justice or the people of New Jersey for legislators to grandstand – regardless of what side they take – on these new charges.