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Christie’s big speech to have no mention of scandal

Posted at 12:06 PM, Jan 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-21 13:14:20-05

(CNN) — On the first day of his second term, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces brewing storms — literally and figuratively.

A scandal over alleged political retribution by his administration has already cost a top aide and campaign strategist their jobs, and now Christie faces multiple investigations that could harm the presidential ambitions of the early Republican front-runner for 2016.

Even the weather was against him, with a looming snowstorm forcing cancellation of his gala celebration on Ellis Island after Tuesday’s second-term inaugural address.

Despite the controversy hanging over the usually celebratory proceedings of an inauguration, Christie won’t address the scandal in his speech, advisers told CNN.

As the Republican governor in a state dominated by Democrats, he instead will contrast himself with the partisanship in Washington by promoting a bipartisan vision for the Garden State.

No matter how hard he tries to avoid the scandal over traffic gridlock in Fort Lee as apparent political payback, his words will be scrutinized for any reference or hint regarding investigations by a U.S. attorney and the state legislature, as well as a promised internal review.

Before Christie speaks, the New Jersey state Assembly and Senate will announce they will merge their separate investigative committees into one panel to probe the allegations that Christie’s administration abused its power, sources told CNN’s Dana Bash and Shimon Prokupecz.

Business mogul and Republican backer Donald Trump summed up Christie at a political breakfast Tuesday in New Hampshire, saying, “He’s a good guy, but he’s one e-mail away from a disaster.”

‘Our dreams are the same’

Excerpts of his speech released in advance indicated Christie would stick to the same themes as his State of the State address last week.

“One of the lessons that I have learned most acutely over the last four years is that New Jersey can really be one state,” Christie plans to say as he takes office for a second term after his landslide re-election victory in November.

“This election has taught us that the ways we divide each other — by race, by class, by ethnicity, by wealth, by political party — is neither permanent nor necessary,” he will say. “Our dreams are the same: a good job, a great education for our children, safe streets in our neighborhood and core values which give our lives real meaning.”

In an effort to position himself as an alternative to Washington political dysfunction, Christie will warn against the hyperpartisanship and gridlock that have caused record low support for Congress in opinion polls.

“We cannot fall victim to the attitude of Washington, D.C.,” he will say. “The attitude that says I am always right and you are always wrong. The attitude that puts everyone into a box they are not permitted to leave.”

Such remarks will fly in the face of the image some opponents are offering of an administration that carries out dirty threats and retributive tactics against political opponents.

The state and federal investigations are looking into suggestions that top aides and advisers to the governor orchestrated traffic jams around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

Christie has denied knowledge of the alleged bridge scheme.

In another controversy, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer alleges Christie’s administration “held hostage” Superstorm Sandy recovery funds.

Hours before Christie’s second inaugural, a top New Jersey Republican defended him.

“He’s a former federal prosecutor, indicted over a hundred politicians. He’s the last guy on earth who’s going to do an illegal activity. It’s repugnant to him,” said Jon Bramnick, the Republican leader in the New Jersey State Assembly, on CNN’s “New Day.”

“He is the most straight-talking, honest, most charismatic, successful leader that I have seen in all of my life in New Jersey,” Bramnick told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.

In his much-watched State of the State Address last week, Christie briefly acknowledged the controversies at the top of his speech. He then spent most of the address touting his achievements over the past four years and highlighting his bipartisan accomplishments.

With the next race for the White House on the horizon, and Christie seriously considering a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, he hopes the message is one that will resonate with a national audience.

However, new national polling indicates that Christie’s standing among independents and Democrats has taken a hit.

As Christie formally starts his second term, what was supposed to be a day of celebration is now clouded by the multiple controversies.

“He needs to talk about getting things done that help people and try to turn the page here. These investigations are going to last for months,” said CNN chief national correspondent John King. “Over the next couple of months, can he effectively govern in New Jersey while these investigations are going on? That’s a giant challenge.”

Hoboken mayor provides more evidence

Zimmer, the Hoboken mayor, says she was pressured by one of Christie’s officials to back a development project in the city that Christie supported.

In particular, she said she received an ultimatum from Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to support the plan proposed by The Rockefeller Group — a firm with Christie ties — or risk losing out on Superstorm Sandy recovery funds. Zimmer said Guadagno told her the message came directly from the governor.

Aides and advisers to Christie have ties to Wolff & Samson, the law firm representing The Rockefeller Group.

The firm’s lobbyist, Lori Grifa, was a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, and Wolff & Samson’s David Samson is chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and was appointed by Christie.

Samson was recently served with a subpoena in the George Washington Bridge case by the state legislature investigative committee seeking relevant documents.

Guadagno publicly denied the accusation.

“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,” Guadagno said Monday.

Zimmer, a Democrat elected in 2009, also said Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable made a similar demand regarding storm aid and the real estate plan.

Constable also denied her accusations, calling the claims libelous and “patently false and absurd on their face.”

Zimmer said she stands by her account, remains “willing to testify under oath,” and will answer any questions from the U.S. attorney’s office.

Hoboken, a historically working-class town on the banks of the Hudson River made famous by favorite son Frank Sinatra, has experienced a resurgence in recent years. New development, cleaned-up parks and neighborhood charm marketing nostalgia have boosted its image and attracted new residents and businesses.

Zimmer met with the office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman for several hours Sunday at its request and provided prosecutors with her journal, which contained information about the parking lot episode.

Guadagno said she recalled having a conversation with Zimmer that day, but that Zimmer is mischaracterizing their conversation. A source close to Guadagno who was not authorized to speak publicly said it was Zimmer who argued that Sandy recovery aid and redevelopment were the same issue, according to a source

“She remembers Zimmer pressing Kim for money for Sandy. Kim remembers saying you can’t tie the two together,” the source told CNN. “And she remembers Zimmer continuing to press and showing her a map of the city and pressing for aid for Sandy.”

Zimmer disputes that account and provided CNN with letters that she said back up her case.

On April 23, she sent a letter to Christie’s office that says development and Sandy aid should not be connected.

“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 letter read.

She sent another letter to his office on May 8 asking for help with funding pumps. Zimmer’s conversation with Guadagno happened just days later and the mayor said she believes the two events are related.

“When you look at all of the events together, you can see that it was a progression. It was a progression of pressure and she was sent in to really make that final message to me,” Zimmer told CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Christie spokesman: Hoboken accusation false

Christie spokesman Colin Reed said it was “categorically false” that Sandy funds were withheld.

“It’s very clear partisan politics are at play here as Democratic mayors with a political ax to grind come out of the woodwork and try to get their faces on television,” Reed said in a statement.

Building its case against Zimmer, Christie’s administration hosted a conference call for reporters Monday defending how Sandy funds were allocated.

Marc Ferzan, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said that Zimmer’s accounting is “a mischaracterization.”

After Sandy, Hoboken was 80% underwater. Zimmer said the city received about $300,000 of the roughly $100 million in state funds the city requested for flood prevention.

Ferzan said Hoboken has been approved for nearly $70 million in aid. But that aid was given mostly to individual residents and small businesses, not the city of Hoboken.

The Hoboken allegation is the second to surface regarding Sandy money.

A federal watchdog, the inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is looking at protocols around state spending for a marketing ad for Sandy recovery featuring Christie and his family. The Christie administration went with a firm that charged twice as much to produce the spot as another bidder.

CNN’s Chris Frates, Steve Kastenbaum, Erin McPike, Jake Tapper, Paul Steinhauser and Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.