Fort Lee Fiasco — Follow the Money (and the Political Donations)

By Max Pizarro | January 22nd, 2014

 

FORT LEE – Ever since the infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" memo, the state's political class has buzzed with theories about a motive.

The original theory – that it was retribution for Mayor Mark Sokolich's failure to endorse Gov. Chris Christie's re-election – created more questions.

The theory posited by MSNBC's Steve Kornacki and advanced by Brian Murphy (former reporters at this website) – suggests that the motive for BridgeGate connects to a development project in Fort Lee called Hudson Lights.

Somehow, the theory goes, the Governor's people must have been trying to pressure the developers of the billion-dollar commercial, residential and business complex called Hudson Lights. Let's take a step back and look at three politicians whose relationships converge in the tiny town of Fort Lee...

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They called it bipartisanship, and for voters both nationally and in New Jersey, that message resounded like the post-Hurricane Sandy surf they toured together.

The narrative helped produce a re-election victory for President Barack Obama in 2012; and then assisted a 2013 triumph for Gov. Christie.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) sandwiched a win in between.

Enjoying the victories were developers who supported the three politicians, developers who converged on a sought-after piece of property in Fort Lee, New Jersey, high above the Hudson River at the entranceway to the George Washington Bridge.

While there is no evidence of anything improper, the picture that emerges intertwines powerful political entities with much to gain via development.

As Christie and Booker sounded notes of wanting to work together and Obama paid no heed to the outstretched hand of Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, the developers focused on the $1 billion Hudson Lights project that now stands at the center of the George Washington Bridge Scandal.

The project features – or at least has at one time featured in iterations examined by PolitickerNJ - a partnership between Tucker Development of Highland Park, Illinois; and Kushner Real Estate (KRE) of Bridgewater, a cross-country coming together of shared interests.

The Illinois developer is represented locally by Genova Burns Giantomasi Webster, a politically connected law firm close to Booker, the former mayor of Newark – among others in the New Jersey political power universe.

A longtime big financial backer of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-Il.) and other Illinois Democratic Party pols, and a regular donor to Obama, Tucker Development has holdings in Newark in addition to Fort Lee.

The developer broke ground on the Springfield Marketplace in Newark on the day after Booker won his general election tilt for the vacant U.S. Senate seat.

When Booker's black SUV came in for a landing on Oct. 17th, another SUV came in alongside the tent crammed with local power players.

Two doors opened and Christie and Booker hit the turf and bear-hugged.

According to FEC records, Richard Tucker, CEO of Tucker Development, last year gave at least $5,200 to Booker’s U.S. Senate Campaign. KRE Chief Murray Kushner also gave $3,200 to Booker’s 2013 Senate Campaign.

(Murray Kushner and Kushner Real Estate are not affiliated with Kushner Companies, the company whose CEO is the publisher of PolitickerNJ).

Insiders are intensifying questions about the financing details for the high-end Hudson Lights.

But the theory raised by Kornacki and others – that Christie was trying to stall or threaten the Tucker-KRE development – doesn't complete the picture, given the longstanding, close ties between Chris Christie and the minority investor in Hudson Lights, KRE's Murray Kushner.

Murray Kushner has been among Chris Christie's most loyal and generous donors, including his contribution of $7,600 to Christie’s re-election ($3800 each to his primary and general). Murray's wife, Lee Kushner, was also generous to the governor, with her own double maxout of $7600.

Meanwhile, Murray Kushner demonstrated eye-popping generosity toward the New Jersey Republican State Committee, which can acceptmuch higher limits than the governor directly and was thus used by the governor's fundraisers as a repository for those who wanted to curry even more favor than a husband-wife double max-out would allow.

On June 18, 2009, as Christie was deep in his first campaign for governor and facing superior funding by incumbent Jon Corzine, Murray Kushner gave $25,000 to the state GOP. He gave another $25,000 on Nov. 30, 2011. And another $25,000 on Aug. 15, 2012. That's a whopping $75,000 in three years. Murray also gave $10,400 to the Senate GOP in 2011 and $10,000 to the Senate GOP in 2005. It's a lot of money but not much compared to, say, $33 million in state tax credits.

It is improbable that Christie sought to stall a project whose minority investor has been such a loyal donor. In fact, observers noted a different KRE project, this one for three towers near Journal Square in Jersey City, received $33 million in state tax credits, as reported by the Star-Ledger. These tax credits are hard to come by, especially at such an enormous dollar figure, but KRE's application seems to have moved rather quickly through the system.

PolitickerNJ has no evidence of a quid pro quo in which the $33 million in tax credits were awarded in exchange for the more than $100,000 Murray Kushner had given Chris Christie and the NJ GOP over the last five years. But PolitickerNJ has unearthed a memo of a meeting of New Jersey's Economic Development Authority, chaired by the Governor's appointees, on April 9, 2013. According to the minutes of this meeting, Murray Kushner attended and "thanked the Board for its support of the Journal Square Associates project, and added that but for the EDA's prior assistance in Jersey City, the new project would not have happened.(see above)."

According to subpoenaed documents furnished to the Assembly Transportation Committee, Port Authority Commission Chairman David Samson, chairman of Christie's 2009 transition team and former attorney general, a big donor to Democrats through the years, criticized Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority, for overriding the Christie Administration directive and ordering the two lanes reopened.

Foye issued his order to Port Authority officials on Sept. 13.

On Sept. 18, Samson wrote to Port Authority Vice Chairman Scott Rechler in reference to Foye, "he's playing in traffic, made a big mistake."

Genova Burns Giantomasi Webster, the highly respected law firm representing Tucker Development, also represents the subpoenaed Samson, sources say.

Although it's not yet clear who was the intended recipient of the message Christie's people wanted to send, insiders continue to wonder about the high-end Hudson Lights, and wonder about the connection between Kelly’s order and the politically powerfully rooted development project.

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