TRENTON, N.J. - New documents obtained by the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press show the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is hiding details of the $25 million "Stronger Than the Storm" advertising campaign, which now is at the center of a federal probe.
Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development is auditing the state's decision to award the
advertising contract to a firm that charged $2.2 million more than a
comparable bidder for similar work, said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.,
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Pallone said he requested a federal review in August after an Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
investigation revealed the two finalists for the contract had different
views on how the campaign to boost tourism at the Jersey Shore should
be run after Superstorm Sandy devastated the shore in 2012. MWW proposed putting Christie in the ads. The other bidder, a team headed by the Sigma Group, did not. MWW won the contract.
was another difference between the firms. MWW had made 234 corporate
contributions totaling $201,300 to candidates and political committees
from both parties in New Jersey since 1987. Sigma was not politically
The Christie administration has taken months to release
specifics about the bids and the process that led to MWW winning the
contract. New Jersey's open records law says government records must be
provided within seven business days. The latest batch of documents were
delivered to the Press after the paper threatened to go to court to force their release.
The state Economic Development Authority
was asked in the public records request for the score sheets from the
six members of the evaluation committee that awarded the contract to
The newspaper received the sheets, but the names of the
evaluators were blacked out, making it impossible to learn whose votes
helped swing the contract award to MWW. The state declined to provide a
reason for redacting the names.
MWW defends ad
contract entitled the East Rutherford, N.J., company to collect $4.7
million for labor costs and markups. The runner-up bid from Sigma sought
$2.5 million for the same costs.
Shannon Morris, the head
of Sigma, said, "I'm a little bit relieved that someone's asking the
questions that need to be asked about the awarding of that contract."
spokesman William Murray in a statement said the advertising resulted
in "one of the most successful campaigns in the history of New Jersey
and had a material impact on the economic recovery of the Jersey Shore."
a report on tourism for the 2013 summer season prepared by MWW, and
released by the state Monday, showed year-over-year declines in hotel
tax receipts and occupancy, hospitality employment, beach pass sales and
transit ridership. MWW claimed the campaign helped negate a much worse
summer because of the impression the Jersey Shore was still damaged from
Murray in his statement claimed that MWW's proposal
"included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid
But Shannon Eis, the company's senior vice president, said in a May 2013 interview with the Press
that MWW executives pitched using the governor in a starring role when
they met with state officials March 15. The contract was awarded in May.
"From the creative side we had to decide who is the strongest voice
communicating that we're back from the storm, and the governor has been
that voice. We put out this very huge concept that included having the
governor's office involved loud and clear," Eis said.
Murray declined to comment beyond his statement.
When questioned about the campaign last summer, Christie said he had no input into the TV ad campaign.
certainly have no second thoughts about it," Christie said in August.
"I didn't make the decision, but I certainly don't second-guess the
Campaign approved by feds
Pallone said at
his request the inspector general conducted a preliminary review of the
spending and concluded last week that there is enough evidence to launch
a full-scale investigation into the state's use of federal funds.
The findings will be made public in several months, Pallone said.
group that chose the firm, which was not the low bidder, consisted of
people that were very close to the governor - some of his advisers,"
Pallone said. "My feeling was that it smelled, basically, and that this
was money that came from the Sandy package which I and others had fought
very hard to obtain in Congress and you know it's not easy. It was a
long and drawn out effort to get that money.
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money could have been used to help my constituents recover," he said.
"Even today we have a lot of people in my district and throughout the
state who still have not received the funding to help restore or rebuild
Pallone said a tourism advertising campaign is
probably worthwhile but added, "It is not the actual doing the
advertising that is bothering me, it's the fact that the low bidder
wasn't chosen and that the one that was chosen was twice the price - an
extra $2 million - and the low bidder indicated that they were not going
to put the governor in the ad. The only difference between these two
was one was much more expensive and was going to feature the governor in
The Christie administration defended the ad campaign, saying the plans had been approved by the Obama administration.
Stronger Than the Storm 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," Christie spokesman Colin Reed
said. "Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating
procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds
are distributed fairly. 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."
announcement of the probe comes at a difficult time for Christie, whose
staff has been implicated in a scandal involving the politically
motivated closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. An
Assembly panel, investigating that action, released thousands of pages
of documents it had subpoenaed last week, showing that a Christie deputy
chief of staff had prior knowledge of the closings, despite the
governor's claims that no one on his staff had known.