Deepening the hole New Jersey GOP governor Chris Christie has created for himself, sources are reporting that the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has opened a federal investigation into whether Christie used Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce commercials for his re-election campaign.
Already racked in a scandal over his alleged involvement in snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge, Christie, a rising star in the GOP, is scrambling to react to the new developments in regards to his potential misuse of Sandy relief funds.
The investigation focuses on a federally-financed $25 million Jersey Shore marketing campaign, including a television commercial featuring Christie and his family.
“While promoting tourism at the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is certainly a worthy endeavor, recent reports have led me to believe that the state has irresponsibly misappropriated funding allocated by Congress from the Sandy aid package and taken advantage of this waiver for political purposes,” the letter said. The ad aired in the spring as Christie headed into a re-election campaign to win a second term.
On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast. The storm killed at least 159 people, and damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes.
“Had Governor Christie chosen the less expensive firm, $2.2 million in federal disaster aid could have potentially been directed elsewhere, for example, to provide 44 Sandy-impacted homeowners $50,000 grants to raise their homes,” Pallone said in a press release.
The investigation arrives in the shadow of a scandal dubbed “Bridgegate” by the news media, in which it is alleged that a massive traffic jam was orchestrated by Christie’s staff in September, apparently as political payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who didn’t endorse Christie for reelection.
In addition, Christie also faces a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court this Thursday by Rosemarie Arnold, who charges area residents suffered financially from being trapped in the traffic jam.
According to a report from Alternet, here are 6 things you need to know about the latest Christie developments:
[box type=”shadow”]1. Congress raised alarms about the ads in August. In August, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) alerted the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the Christie administration may have “irresponsibly misappropriated funding allocated by Congress from the Sandy aid package” and used funds set aside for promoting the state “for political purposes.” “[T]he contract was awarded to a firm that is charging over $2 million more than the next lowest bidder to develop the marketing plan,” Pallone wrote, noting that “the winning bid proposed including Governor Chris Christie in the advertisements, while the lower cost proposal that was not selected did not.” “It is inappropriate for taxpayer-funded dollars that are critical to our state’s recovery from this natural disaster to fund commercials that could potentially benefit a political campaign.”
2. Conservatives questioned Christie’s staring role. In November, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said Christie’s appearance in the television ads gave the recovery effort a “ black eye.” “People running for office put their mug all over these ads while they were in the middle of a political campaign,” Paul said during a committee hearing. “In New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office. You think there might be a conflict of interest there? That’s a real problem and that’s why when people who are trying to do good and trying to use taxpayers’ money wisely, they’re offended to see our money spent on political ads. That’s just offensive.”
3. Chair of bidding committee has close ties to Christie. A six-member bid evaluation committee of Christie administration officials selected the higher price despite issuing a report that said Sigma’s proposal also “ addressed the tasks and deliverables specified in the RFQ (request for quotation) … (and) could effectively meet the requirements of this RFQ.” Michele Brown, a close Christie aid, led the bid evaluation. “Brown is a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey but resigned that post in 2009 amid controversy over a loan of $46,000 from Christie,” Asbury Park Press reports.
4. The winning firm donated thousands to Republicans. The East Rutherford, New Jersey based MWW Firm has donated heavily to Democrats, but “MWW employees donated $1,000 to Christie’s 2009 Republican gubernatorial primary campaign and $1,500 to his 2010 inaugural committee.” The MWW Group PAC “spent $95,250 in the 2012 federal election cycle, with 73 percent of the money going to Democrats, though the largest single expenditure, $5,000, went to the National Republican Congressional Committee.” The losing ad firm, Sigma, did not make any political contributions.
5. The winning firm originally sought more money. Contract documents reveal that “MWW’s team had sought $5.2 million in labor costs and markups, with company CEO Kempner requesting his own compensation to be set at $595 per hour. After negotiations with state officials, MWW reduced its price and removed Kempner from the compensation list.”
6. Christie says he selected firm for its “statewide connections.” The Christie administration insists that MWW was the best choice, claiming that it had “statewide connections that would allow it to mobilize quickly to perform the high-stakes work of boosting tourism in the first summer season since superstorm Sandy.” “The size and scope of the PR campaign that MWW undertook was far larger and more labor-intensive than any other bidder’s,” said Michael Drewniak, a Christie spokesperson.[/box]