Legal experts: Alleged Sandy extortion could be more serious than Bridgegate

Legal experts in New Jersey aren’t surprised at how quickly area U. S. Attorney Paul Fishman responded to Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claim that the Chris Christie administration tried to extort her into supporting a development project if she wanted more Sandy relief funding.  They not only think there’s enough evidence to open a preliminary investigation (a BFD in and of itself)–but that in the long run, Christie may have more to fear from this than Bridgegate.
Interest in the mayor claims comes at the same time the U.S. Attorney’s Office is reviewing the September lane closures on to the George Washington Bridge, which are also the subject of an ongoing investigation by the state Legislature.But James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University, said the Hoboken case is more serious.

“Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls,” Cohen said. “But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.”

Aidan O’Connor, an attorney with PashmanStein and a former federal prosecutor, said he was not surprised by the quick response of the U.S. Attorney’s Office considering the gravity of Zimmer’s charges and the enormous public interest.

“You’re going to need corroboration or proof of something that happened as a result of something the mayor did or did not do,” O’Connor said. “The prosecutor’s office is going to need some corroboration that there was this threat of economic retaliation.”

He said the mayor’s journal typically would not be admissible in court unless prosecutors need to use it to prove Zimmer did not just make up the claims because of the Christie administration’s struggles, or if someone challenges Zimmer’s memory of the encounters.

“At the end of the day, it’s still her word against the lieutenant governor’s word at this stage,” O’Connor said.

But Cohen said the diary would be “a very important piece of evidence.”

“It adds credibility to the statement,” the Fordham professor said. “She took the trouble to write something down.”

Cohen went on to say that this case will almost certainly go to court, since it’s a slam dunk that there’s probably more evidence.  He also thinks that if there is something to these charges, other local officials will likely speak up.  And if this ends up going to trial, anyone involved in this could face some serious jail time–with some of the potential offenses carrying a minimum of five years in prison.

Zimmer outlined some of that potential evidence last night on Anderson Cooper 360.  She produced two letters that document how she claims the Christie administration was turning the screws on her.  She also revealed why she waited so long to come forward–she was afraid if she spoke up any sooner, it would cripple her city’s chances of getting more funding.  Watch part 1 of that interview here and part 2 here.

The first letter, dated April 23, says that given the damage to Hoboken’s infrastructure, the proposed development project would be a waste.  She told Christie in no uncertain terms, “Just as shore towns are not being asked for development in exchange for protecting them from future storms, the solution to Hoboken’s flooding challenges cannot be dependent on future development.”  The second letter, dated May 8, was penned less than 24 hours after the already battered city was slammed by a rainstorm; much of the western half of the city was flooded.  Zimmer was aghast that Christie refused to greenlight any additional funding for pump infrastructure beyond a low-interest loan.  The implication–that funding was dependent on the development project.  According to the Jersey (City) Journal the Hoboken planning board effectively deep-sixed the project on the same day Zimmer sent her second letter.

I have to admit, I was surprised that this could potentially be more serious than Bridgegate.  After all, it doesn’t seem that you could get more serious than an act that not only willfully interferes with interstate commerce, but also puts people’s lives in danger.  But after reading those letters Zimmer provided, I have to agree that this mess is at least as egregious as Bridgegate.  If Zimmer is telling the truth, Christie and his people knew that an entire city was finding it hard to survive–and yet were still willing to play games with their livelihood.  That makes Christie look even more depraved than Bush 43 partying while the levees blew during Katrina–and I didn’t think that was possible.

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