Bob Jordan, Asbury Park Press, and Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY
Federal auditors are investigating whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie improperly used $25 million in Sandy relief funds for a tourism ad starring the governor and his family, according to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
The marketing campaign and ads were rolled out as Christie was gearing up for his 2013 re-election bid,
Pallone said Monday that the inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, after a preliminary review, has concluded that there is enough evidence to launch a full-scale investigation into how Christie, a Republican, chose to spend the marketing money approved by HUD, the Asbury Park Press reported.
The commercials were part of a campaign, dubbed "Stronger Than The Storm," aimed at luring tourists back to the New Jersey shore, which had been ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.
Pallone, a 27-year House veteran and vocal Christie critic, said an Asbury Park Press probe into the bidding process led him last August to ask the IG to look into how the state selected a $4.7 million contract to produce the ads. The winning bid was about $2 million higher than the runner-up bid.
"This was money that could have directly been used for Sandy recovery. And, as you know, many of my constituents still haven't gotten the money that is owed them to rebuild their homes or raise their homes or to help," Pallone toll CNN, which first reported the story, Pallone said the IG audit will take several months and the findings will be issued in an official report.
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie, said Monday that the campaign "was just one part of the first action plan approved by the Obama Administration and developed with the goal of effectively communicating that the Jersey Shore was open for business during the first summer after Sandy."
"Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly," Reed added. "We're confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history."
The Press investigation last summer showed that a six-member bid evaluation committee of Christie administration officials picked the bidder who charged the state more in fees and salaries despite an acknowledgement that a competitor also "addressed the tasks and deliverables specified in the RFQ (request for quotation) ... (and) could effectively meet the requirements of this RFQ."
Aside from higher price tag, the most glaring difference between the winning bidder, MWW, and the runner-up, Sigma, was that MWW said it would feature Christie in its ad campaign. The Christie administration said that MWW's experience and the overall scope of its campaign tilted the scales in its favor.
In November, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also criticized the ads, asking HUD secretary Shaun Donovan at a committee hearing whether it was appropriate to permit New Jersey to use federal relief dollars to fund the ad campaign.
While Donovan declined to take a position, Paul weighed in with his own views, slamming people "running for office (who) put their mug all over these ads while they're in the middle of a political campaign."
"In New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office," Paul said. "I'm thinking there might be a conflict of interest there. That's a real problem. And that's why, when people are trying to do good and trying to use the taxpayer's money wisely, they're offended to see our money spent on political ads. That's just offensive."
Paul noted that New York state has aired similar tourism ads, but that state law barred state officials from appearing on-camera, The Washington Post reports.