STATE — Democratic lawmakers are looking into assorted allegations of political payoffs by Gov. Chris Christie in the wake of revelations that his staff shut down the George Washington Bridge in retribution against a mayor who refused to endorse the Republican’s re-election.
Superstorm Sandy spending will be audited and other state funding allocations will be examined for evidence that the distribution of taxpayer’s cash was predicated on political favors.
Democratic leaders in the state Assembly said that a new investigative committee would begin by probing the bridge closure and likely expand into other allegations of political rewards and retribution by Christie.
“An abuse of power like this is not something we will stand for,” said Vincent Prieto, the incoming Assembly Speaker.
Christie was once considered a leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but his involvement in the GWB scandal appears to have derailed any chance that his candidacy could proceed.
Other investigators are looking into the Christie administration. The U.S. attorney’s office, where Christie once served as New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor, announced an inquiry into the four-day traffic tieups last week.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. announced that the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will audit how the state spent $25 million in Superstorm Sandy aid funds.
The bipartisan Assembly committee will be led by Assemblyman John Wisniewski and armed with subpoena power and its own independent counsel. Wisniewski said he doubts Christie’s claim that until last week, he was unaware that the lane closures were engineered by some of his top aides.
Emails released by Wisniewski, who chairs the transportation committee, showed that several top Christie administration figures exchanged messages celebrating the traffic hassles and expressing anger that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointees on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reopened the lanes.
The closures created four days of nightmarish traffic jams in Fort Lee, the town whose Democratic mayor declined to endorse Christie, angering motorists and delaying emergency vehicles.
Christie said the closures were needed to examine traffic patterns, but no evidence of such a study has emerged.
“When you have so many people in his upper level senior circle who received information about the fallout, the traffic jams, and the effort to spin the traffic jams … it strains credibility to say that all of the senior people whose job it is to keep the governor informed did absolutely nothing with these emails,” Wisniewski said at a Trenton news conference Monday.
Many of the more than 60 endorsements from local Democratic politicians that Christie succeeded in getting appeared to be transactional in nature.
Harrison Mayor Ray McDonough, for example, cited the governor’s help in getting the Port Authority to spend $250 million on improvements to the PATH station.
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli praised Christie for working with Democrats to set aside $6 million in the state budget after Sandy hit to help offset the costs of towns that had to pay into a Meadowlands regional tax-sharing program.
It is illegal to offer anything of value as an inducement for political support and particularly troublesome to trade taxpayer money for a personal advantage, although it can be difficult to prove the connections required to win a criminal conviction. This complexity and the large number of potential targets suggests that this investigation could dominate the remainder of Christie’s term, which begins Jan. 21.
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