Illinois link to Jersey’s Bridgegate scandal?

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When it comes to the sheer volume and audacity of public corruption schemes, only Louisiana, Florida and New Jersey might rival the notoriety of Illinois.

The Bridgegate scandal that has tarnished New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is so unique and inventive, though, it suggests the Garden State beats Illinois in the game of political payback.

We have seen all kinds of scams here, perpetrated by many of the most colorful characters anywhere. But we’ve never seen an Illinois governor’s aides close bridge lanes to purposely create traffic jams, as Christie aides  did last year.


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Please enable Javascript to watch this videoThe only claims of bridge-related political shenanigans in Chicago’s recent history surfaced in the 2006 federal corruption trial of aides to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

A former personnel director in the Streets and Sanitation Department testified that he made sure the tollbooths at the Chicago Skyway bridge were fully staffed. The former Daley aide from the 19th Ward said he was trying to make sure the mayor didn’t get stuck in traffic while being chauffeured from his Michigan beach home.

Unlike the contrition shown by a “very sad” Christie, Daley got mad.

“Silliest thing I ever heard in my life,” Daley said, bizarrely pointing out that one reporter who asked about the allegations was bald. “It really is silly. . . .  It’s silly, silly, silly, silly. . . .  It is just silly. Silliness. That is all it is . . . completely silly, completely silly.”

So we are left with nothing to truly match Bridgegate. Our best excuse may be that there is less opportunity here to create the sort of traffic jams that Christie’s aides fomented in Fort Lee, N.J., for a few days last year. Chicago’s geography is different from the New York/New Jersey area, with Manhattan literally an island connected to Jersey by bridge and tunnel.

But there could be an Illinois tie to Bridgegate.

In Fort Lee, there’s a 16-acre property that has long sat vacant, despite its ideal location at the end of the George Washington Bridge between Jersey and New York City. Forty years ago, mob-linked developers tried unsuccessfully to bribe a Fort Lee mayor for the right to build on the site.

Highland Park-based Tucker Development is now poised to succeed where the real-life Sopranos and many others since then have failed. Tucker is lead developer for the $1 billion Hudson Lights project in Fort Lee, next to the G.W. Bridge.

The original theory in Bridgegate was that the lane closures and consequent traffic jams were retribution for Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s failure to endorse the re-election of Christie — a Republican who once had strong bipartisan backing and White House dreams.

Another hypothesis that has reportedly gained credence among Bridgegate investigators is that the closures were in some way related to the Hudson Lights project.  The competing theory is not as simple as the original and a bit more vague.

“The actions taken and the response that it generated are so disproportionate to the failure to get an endorsement from the mayor of Fort Lee that it raises my suspicion that this was done for some other reason,” John Wisniewski, the Democratic New Jersey lawmaker leading a probe into Bridgegate, told the New York Times when asked if the lane closures might have been tied to the development plans in Fort Lee. 

Access to the G.W. Bridge is critical for the massive mixed-use Hudson Lights development. In an email to a Christie appointee during the lane closures, the Fort Lee mayor asked, “What do I do when our billion-dollar redevelopment is put on line at the end of next year?”

A former New Jersey political reporter named Brian Murphy first suggested a possible Hudson Lights link to Bridgegate on MSNBC. Murphy notes that there was an announcement that the Hudson Lights project could go forward a few days after the bridge lanes re-opened.

“I tend to not believe in coincidences,” said Murphy, a City University of New York history professor with the worldview and surname worthy of a 19th Ward precinct captain.

Murphy believes the lane closures were probably an effort “to squeeze the people involved [in Hudson Lights] and try to extract something” of benefit to Christie.

Tucker CEO Richard Tucker knows the confluence of real estate and politics, having made many campaign contributions to President Barack Obama, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Ald. Edward Burke (14th). Through a spokesman in New Jersey, the developer from the North Shore suburbs declined to comment.

In north Jersey and in Chicago, every smart business person who wants to complete a location, location, location deal knows that talking very much about politics would be just silly, silly, silly.

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