WASHINGTON — As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tries to control the damage from a bridge scandal and a federal investigation involving his top aides, federal auditors are launching a separate inquiry into his administration’s use of federal disaster recovery funds for an ad campaign.
The auditors are probing why the Christie administration awarded a lucrative $23 million contract to a well-connected firm to produce tourism ads starring the governor and his family.
The Christie administration is already under federal investigation since revelations last week that key deputies appeared to needlessly close down lanes serving a major bridge and thoroughfare in North Jersey. Emails released to the press last week showed the aides joking about enjoying the ensuing traffic tie-up in Fort Lee, N.J, and investigators are looking at whether the closing was part of a plot to retaliate against the town’s Democratic mayor, who had declined to endorse Christie’s reelection bid.
And Democrats in the New Jersey state Assembly announced Monday that they are launching a special investigative committee to question more members of the Christie administration about the bridge closures .
The timing of the new federal probe, which is focused on the use of Superstorm Sandy recovery funds for a tourism marketing campaign, appears to be coincidental.
In August, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., called the use of the funds for the ad campaign “extremely troubling” and asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general to look into why Christie had approved using storm recovery funds to highlight himself during an election year. The request came on the heels of an article about the marketing contract’s high cost in a local paper, the Asbury Park Press.
Last week, as Christie was fielding a flood of criticism and questions about his knowledge of the snarled bridge traffic, the inspector general’s office notified Pallone that it had found enough credible evidence to begin a full audit of the tourism ads.
The N.J. Economic Development Authority, a Cabinet-level agency in the Christie administration that oversees state and federal funds meant to encourage commerce and economic revitalization, awarded the contract.
The company that won the contract, MWW, said it welcomes the review by the HUD inspector general because news accounts have spread misinformation about the awarding of the work.
“It will show that MWW’s proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign,” said MWW spokesman Bill Murray. “The decision to include the governor was arrived at after the contract was awarded, based on timing, availability, and federal expenditure rules. Assertions to the contrary are simple incorrect. “
The company briefly considered musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi as possible stars for their ad campaign, but there were complications with hiring the famous New Jersey natives. Both were touring in the spring months when the ads were scheduled to be produced.