Feds Launch Audit Into Sandy-Related Spending In New Jersey
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gives his State of the State speech today. It comes at one of those awkward moments in the life of a politician.
MONTAGNE: Christie is considered a presidential prospect for 2016, which guarantees scrutiny of everything he does. His administration faces questions about politically-motivated closing of lanes over the George Washington Bridge to New York. And Christie faces another high-profile investigation.
INSKEEP: This one focuses on how his administration spent millions of dollars in federal relief funds on a marketing campaign.
As NPR's Joe Rose reports, post-Hurricane Sandy, tourism ads featured Chris Christie and drew criticism because they aired during his reelection campaign.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you were watching TV in or around New Jersey last summer, the ads were hard to miss.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Jersey Shore is open.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: The word is spreading, because we're stronger than the storm.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You bet we are.
ROSE: The 30-second ads featured the governor and his family. They used federal funding to promote tourism. They aired so often, that even Christie joked he was getting a little tired of the campaign's theme song, "Stronger Than the Storm."
CHRISTIE: If you think it's stuck in your head...
CHRISTIE: ...you can only imagine how stuck it is in my head.
ROSE: Democrats were not amused that the Republican governor was essentially getting free airtime in the middle of a reelection the campaign. But Christie defended the ad campaign this way.
CHRISTIE: The reason for that program is pretty simple: There's still lots of people around who didn't believe we'd be ready for the summer. And while not everything is perfect, by a long shot, we didn't want to let businesses in this state go down the tubes because nobody knew that we were here and ready to welcome them.
ROSE: Christie's critics were even angrier when they learn that his administration got bids from two different advertising firms and picked the more expensive bid, which happened to feature the governor and his family in the ads. That campaign cost $4.7 million. The other firm's bid came in at two-and-a-half million, but that one did not include the Christies on camera.
The governor's opponent in last year's election, Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono, believes those ads have a real impact on the outcome.
STATE SENATOR BARBARA BUONO: Clearly, these commercials didn't help. It had the governor out there in a very visible way, you know, reminding people of the, you know, his calling card to his popularity, in my opinion, which is how he handled Sandy. Now even that is being called into question.
ROSE: It was announced yesterday at the Department of Housing and Urban Development - which allocated funds for the marketing campaign - is launching an audit of how the money was spent.
In a statement, a spokesman for Governor Christie says the ad campaign helped New Jersey get back on its feet after the storm and called the federal review, quote, "routine." But Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, who requested the audit back in August of last year, says there is nothing routine about it.
REPRESENTATIVE FRANK PALLONE: I don't see any reason why the governor had to appear in the ads. But beyond that, we would've saved over $2 million if they hadn't and they'd used the other firm. It raises an issue of impropriety that should be looked into.
ROSE: Pallone says the timing of the HUD announcement is a coincidence. Still, it could hardly come at a worse time for the Christie administration. The governor denies knowing about politically-motivated traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge until last week, when he cut ties with two close aides. But Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey are not convinced.
PALLONE: This has become larger than a transportation issue, and that's the reason that we're creating this supercommittee.
ROSE: Yesterday, Democrats in Trenton announced a new committee created specifically to investigate possible abuses of power by the Christie administration. Chairman John Wisniewski says he still has plenty of unanswered questions.
ASSEMBLYMAN JOHN WISNIEWSKI: When you have so many people in his upper-level senior circle that received information about the fallout, the traffic jams and the efforts to spin the traffic jams, in the context of a governor running for reelection, it strains credibility to say that all of these senior people whose job it is to communicate and keep the governor informed did absolutely nothing with these emails.
ROSE: One of the committee's first acts may be used to issue subpoenas to former members of Christie's staff who were intimately involved in the lane closures. It's against that backdrop that Governor Christie will give his State of the State speech today and lay out the agenda for a second term that suddenly looks very different than it did just a few weeks ago.
Joel Rose, NPR News.