By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey's lieutenant governor on Monday denied a claim by the mayor of Hoboken that Governor Chris Christie's administration linked release of Superstorm Sandy relief funds to approval of a Hoboken development project.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer says Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno warned her that Christie would withhold disaster recovery funding if Zimmer did not support a bid by the New York-based Rockefeller Group to build on several blocks in he New Jersey city.
The Democratic mayor's claim has added to political woes for Christie, who is widely seen as a Republican contender for the White House in 2016. Christie already is grappling with a scandal tied to his top aides who seemingly punished the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, by orchestrating chaotic traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge.
Christie has been on a fundraising trip in Florida over the weekend. His spokesman has dismissed the Hoboken mayor's claims as false, as did Guadagno on Monday at a public appearance in Union Beach, New Jersey.
"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.
"Any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false," she said, adding, "Being a Sandy victim myself makes the mayor's allegations particularly offensive to me."
In response, the Hoboken mayor said she was "genuinely disappointed" that Christie's second-in-command "would deny linking Hoboken's application for Sandy hazard mitigation funding with expediting a private development project."
Zimmer, who said she met on Sunday with members of the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey, said she gave them her journal, which describes her conversation with Guadagno.
"I stand by my word, remain willing to testify under oath, and I will continue to answer any questions asked of me by the U.S. Attorney's Office," she said in a statement.
Zimmer has said she and the lieutenant governor discussed the Sandy funds in a parking lot before an event in Hoboken in May.
Recounting that conversation on CNN on Sunday, Zimmer said: "The lieutenant governor said, essentially: 'You've got to move forward with the Rockefeller project,'" Zimmer said on Sunday, saying Guadagno called it "a direct message from the governor."
Zimmer also said she has only received a fraction of the $127 million in relief funds she requested for Hoboken, which is across the Hudson River from Manhattan and was badly flooded by Sandy in late 2012.
The mayor first made her accusations on MSNBC on Saturday.
Guadagno said she looked forward to inquiries into the controversy so the truth would emerge.
"I deny any suggestions made by Mayor Zimmer that there was ever any condition placed on the release of Sandy funds by me," she said, adding that she was "surprised that Mayor Zimmer has chosen to mischaracterize the conversation I had with her about development and job creation in Hoboken."
Christie's weekend trip to Florida to raise money for Republican Governor Rick Scott was his first political trip since his office was engulfed by scandal this month.
Christie - who held a nearly two-hour-long news conference on January 9 in which he said he had been blindsided and humiliated by some of his staff, whom he accused of lying - said in an interview published on Monday by Yahoo News that he expected "to learn from this."
"I know I will. I don't know exactly what it is yet that I'll learn from it. But when I get the whole story and really try to understand what's going on here, I know I'm going to learn things," Christie said in the interview which Yahoo said was conducted on Friday.
The political tempest erupted with the release of emails that seemed to show some of his closest aides purposely snarling traffic in Fort Lee by closing two out of three access lanes to the busy bridge linking New Jersey and New York City.
The lane closures appeared to be retribution against Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, who declined to endorse Christie for re-election.
Christie has said he did not know of his aides' plans, and he fired and cut ties with them after their roles were revealed.
Federal prosecutors and both chambers of the state legislature are investigating the lane closings, which occurred without notice for four days in September.
Nearly two dozen New Jersey officials, including much of Christie's inner circle, were served with subpoenas on Friday over the lane closures.
Federal officials are also reviewing Christie's use of about $2 million in storm Sandy relief funds for a tourism campaign that features him and his family. New Jersey Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone requested the probe, saying he was concerned about the bidding process for the marketing campaign.
(Additional reporting by David Jones in Newark; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jonathan Oatis)