It was back on Sept. 18 that the Wall Street Journal wrote an article saying, “No one denies that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey triggered massive traffic jams when it shifted local toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey last week. But … police and elected officials in Fort Lee, N.J., say they weren’t given warning that the Port Authority planned to reduce the number of local access lanes directly from Fort Lee to the bridge from three to one… and are still puzzled by the official explanation that the agency was conducting a study of traffic patterns.”
The media pursued the story doggedly for months, which eventually resulted in the resignation of one Port Authority official, David Wildstein, a longtime friend of Gov. Chris Christie, in December of 2013. Wildstein had worked for New Jersey Republican politicians before he was appointed to a $150,000 per year job at the agency. After some suggested that the bridge closures were retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor George Sokolich, who did not endorse Gov. Christie for re-election, Christie held a press conference and joked about the issue.
It was only on Jan. 8, after Wildstein was subpoenaed and provided e-mails from himself and other officials making seemingly retaliatory comments about the lane closures, that the story finally burst onto the national consciousness.
“With some of the networks, you know how it’s going to go. I’m sure it’s part of an overall strategy.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer, on negative coverage of her allegations against Gov. Christie
Zimmer comes forward
Within only a few days of the emails becoming public, in what many now refer to as the “Bridgegate” scandal, Dawn Zimmer and at least one close ally apparently began discussing how she should present her own claims about Christie – claims she hadn’t come forward with before, she has said, because she was afraid no one would believe her.
On Saturday morning, Jan. 18 – exactly 10 days after the “Bridgegate” e-mails were released – Zimmer went on the two-hour MSNBC news program “Up With Steve,” hosted by former Hoboken resident Steve Kornacki, to provide emails, diary entries, and testimony alleging that Christie’s top staff members had improperly suggested to her in May that she might only get more Hurricane Sandy aid for her town if she helped push forward a private development project with whom a different Christie official was associated.
From there, a media firestorm erupted, as did a federal investigation.
The Daily Beast, the web arm of Newsweek, noted in a story published Jan. 21, “Kornacki’s scoop – obtained with help of New Jersey sources dating back to his years as a Hoboken resident…turned out to be explosive…He first heard about her problems with the Christie administration early last week and made an appointment to see her in Hoboken, where she confirmed what he’d been hearing and offered up her documents.”
The media has since reported that Zimmer told “at least” five people about her allegations in the months after May – her communications director, Juan Melli, who, like Steve Kornacki, wrote for a (different) political website in New Jersey for many years; her young aide, Dan Bryan; Councilman David Mello, and two others who have not been named (presumably one of whom is her husband, Stan Grossbard).
Melli declined to answer questions last week about whether he was the one who brought Zimmer’s information to Kornacki or how Zimmer decided to go to MSNBC, citing the ongoing investigation, but it’s been suggested that Zimmer’s choice to keep other media in the dark, and lay out the entire story on that two-hour TV program, was clearly well-planned, likely designed to make sure she could present her story in a comprehensive manner.
In the week that Kornacki spent researching the mayor’s claims, Zimmer, in interviews with the Reporter and with CNN, was asked about her earlier hints to the media that Sandy aid might have been withheld because of her decision not to endorse Christie in last November’s gubernatorial race. At the time, she told both news outlets that she didn’t think there was retaliation for her lack of an endorsement. But she clearly avoided adding that there may have been retaliation for her not moving forward with a development project – apparently saving the information so that she could reveal it on MSNBC that weekend.
Kornacki’s show was also likely to be a useful forum, as he had already been reporting extensively on the Bridgegate scandal. He also had a great deal of interest in New Jersey politics, and in fact had worked under David Wildstein years ago at a political website covering state politics.
The day after the story aired, Zimmer was interviewed by the U.S. Attorney’s office about her allegations, and an investigation began. Zimmer also answered questions from other media, implicating two more Christie officials as she shared more of the story.
As the U.S. Attorney converged on Hoboken, so did the national media, both because Christie had been considered a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and because of a nationwide fascination with New Jersey’s special blend of heated politics. Liberal and conservative websites began alternately praising and discrediting Zimmer, and more information came to light.
Zimmer declined to talk last week about how she made the decision to come forward on MSNBC, but did talk a bit about the subsequent media coverage. She also has stopped talking about her allegations after the U.S. attorney asked her not to comment further on them to the press. Despite her silence, and Christie’s, media coverage has steadily continued. Some stories have borne new information while others have not – an indication of the widespread interest regarding the latest in a series of scandals for which Christie will eventually have to answer.
Back to normal
Three weeks ago, Zimmer told The Reporter that her schedule had largely returned to normal after her appearance on MSNBC. But after that, both the mainstream media and right-wing news organizations began questioning Zimmer’s comments.
After the publication of a CNN piece attempting to poke holes in Zimmer’s story – and providing only a bit of new information – Zimmer said that she still believes the media is mostly shooting straight, with some exceptions.
“I think the coverage has been somewhat fair,” she said. “But with some of the networks, you know how it’s going to go. I’m sure it’s part of an overall strategy.”
As to what type of strategy she was describing, or whose strategy it was, Zimmer declined to comment. It is clear that some of the coverage runs along party lines, with conservative websites like the Daily Caller and Fox News’ site publishing stories taking aim at Zimmer’s credibility, while traditionally liberal public radio stations have praised her.
Mainstream reporting – including a recent cover story in the New York Times that presented emails supporting Zimmer’s case – has largely focused on the allegations and the Christie administration’s denials, with a notable exception. Chris Frates, an investigative journalist with CNN’s Washington D.C. bureau, recently wrote a story entitled “Mayor behind Christie allegations full of contradictions.” Frates had previously written a story that simply highlighted Zimmer’s allegations, but this one took a different angle.
This story, which cited sources close to Christie and the notes taken at a meeting in which one of the alleged conversations between Zimmer and a Christie official was said to have taken place, attempted to show inconsistencies in Zimmer’s allegations. Those who read the story online posted some positive comments, though others said they thought the story had a bias and sensational tone.
“The information came out in stages because Mayor Zimmer was asked different questions in each interview by various reporters,” responded city spokesman Juan Melli in the story, when asked why Zimmer only implicated additional Christie officials in subsequent interviews. “She was not presenting a legal case, but was simply answering the questions that she was asked.”
In one case, Zimmer told the Hoboken Reporter the night the MSNBC story aired that she couldn’t be sure Christie was responsible for comments made to her by an official last May, and that she hoped the comments weren’t coming from Christie. But the next day, she told other news sources that, in fact, an official had allegedly told her that the message about development and Sandy aid was coming directly from Christie.
Zimmer questioned the consistency in Frates’ coverage, noting that she thought one section of his article, on specific Sandy aid allocations, adopted the tone of a memo provided by Christie’s office soon after her initial appearance on MSNBC. (Last week, ABC News broke a memo Christie had distributed to supporters that, among other things, pointed out the CNN story and other media stories discrediting Zimmer.)
“Chris Frates has changed his reporting to reflect Gov. Christie’s talking points,” Zimmer said Thursday.
A representative for CNN’s investigative desk did not return a call for comment.
The Frates piece raised some points made elsewhere in the media about the apparent inconsistencies. It also expressed some frustration that Zimmer held back when talking to CNN in an earlier interview. The story noted, “On Saturday, Zimmer went even farther, telling CNN, ‘I don’t think it was retaliation and I don’t have any reason to think it’s retaliation, but I’m not satisfied with the amount of money I’ve gotten so far,’… Zimmer did, in fact, have some reason to believe it was retaliation, a case she laid out a week later on MSNBC.”
By some accounts, including Zimmer’s, Frates omitted the context of the mayor’s quote – she was responding directly to questions specifically about her decision not to endorse the governor. However, it was clear that Zimmer made a choice not to go any further with other media outlets until the story could be laid out on MSNBC.
Zimmer’s past issues
Mainstream media coverage in the last two weeks has also given a voice to newly-elected Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia, who, as the director of the city’s Housing Authority, filed a lawsuit last year against Zimmer alleging “ethnic cleansing” in Hoboken. Garcia had been at odds with Zimmer’s allies on the public housing board for some time over various decisions affecting the projects. The city’s low-income projects are a source of lucrative contracts, and votes, so they are often at the center of power struggles in Hoboken politics.
Garcia’s lawsuit, initially filed last July, was dismissed last month by a Superior Court judge, largely because it failed to provide evidence to support Garcia’s claims. The judge, however, said he would be allowed to amend the suit and re-file. Garcia filed an amended version of the lawsuit two weeks ago, just as the media descended on Hoboken following Zimmer’s appearance on MSNBC, and both national and international news organizations have picked up on his story. Garcia won a seat in Trenton last November by running on a ticket with Democratic state Sen. Brian Stack, a staunch Christie supporter. Stack recently told The Reporter and other news outlets he doesn’t believe Zimmer’s allegations.
The lawsuit, paired with a secret recording made by Garcia at a lunch meeting with Zimmer’s husband Stan Grossbard and former state Sen. Bernard Kenny in January 2012, was covered extensively in The Hoboken Reporter last summer.
The “ethnic cleansing” story reappeared for the first time a little over a week ago, in a New Jersey TV report. The story was subsequently reported by other mainstream media, including the Star Ledger.
As with all aspects of this issue, some have questioned whether Garcia’s recent comments to the press are politically motivated. Others have said that Garcia’s allegations of bullying by Zimmer’s administration are just as fair to make as Zimmer’s allegations against Christie.
On Thursday, Zimmer would not comment on press coverage of Garcia’s lawsuit and secret audiotape. She did note that she found The Reporter’s coverage of it last summer to be a fair account (that story can be found at http://bit.ly/1nZ72kC).
Garcia said last week that he is happy his story is making national news and confident that his claims will eventually be proven. Garcia’s amended lawsuit dropped the claim of “ethnic cleansing” and instead focuses more on his claims about pressure he says Zimmer’s administration put on him to make certain decisions.
Will Zimmer’s claims lead to charges?
It is clear that Zimmer’s very serious allegations – which specifically named three Christie officials, including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno – further propelled an ongoing discussion over Christie’s actions, as well as his presidential qualifications, to a level beyond what Bridgegate could ever have achieved. They added to a portrayal of Christie’s administration as what some feel is a vengeful, and lustful, quest for personal and political gain.
“The Bridgegate allegations could potentially be prosecuted under state law as official misconduct, but there are still a lot of dots to be connected for there to be serious liability under federal law,” said Christopher Adams, the vice president of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association of New Jersey, in an interview with newsworks.org, a Philadelphia-based organization, last week. “The Hoboken allegations are more serious. You heard nothing from the U.S. Attorney’s Office until Hoboken happened.”
According to Adams and others, Christie’s alleged misconduct on the lane closures could be taken more as bullying than illegal activity. If the U.S. Attorney decides that Zimmer’s claims have merit, Christie officials could face charges (Guadagno and Christie have denied any wrongdoing).
As a result, Zimmer has opened herself up to scrutiny by coming forward, but she clearly has a much stronger case than if she’d tried to do so last May. The majority of online commentary has praised her bravery, while others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Either way, it is clear that Christie will have to face questions about his involvement in both Bridgegate, and what some have referred to as “Hobokengate” or “Sandygate,” until the public is made privy to all of the answers.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com