NEW YORK -- The week of headaches for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues: He is facing questions over whether his office improperly used Superstorm Sandy aid funds for political purposes.
The Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will audit how New Jersey spent $25 million of Sandy aid funds, according to the office of Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who asked the Inspector General to look into the issue in August.
The probe comes days after Christie was engulfed in a political scandal when emails surfaced implying that top aides orchestrated the closure of lanes on the busy George Washington Bridge and snarled traffic in a town whose mayor had declined to support the governor's reelection bid. The scandal led to a rare, two-hour long press conference by Christie, who apologized and said he had fired a staffer and an advisor, and that he knew nothing about the retaliation plans.
At issue in the new probe are funds from a disaster recovery block grant. New Jersey had received permission to spend funds on a marketing campaign to encourage tourism to the Jersey Shore.
But Pallone's office says that the contract to develop the marketing plan was awarded to a firm that charged $4.7 million for its work. The next lowest bidder proposed only $2.5 million. The winning bid proposed including Christie in the ads, Pallone said in the August letter asking for an audit. The lower-cost proposal did not include a Christie ad.
"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," Pallone wrote. "In these sensitive circumstances, even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided."
Pallone's office said Monday that the Inspector General's office had found enough evidence to justify a "full-scale audit" of the state's usage of federal funds.
"We received a request from Congress and are performing an audit to address those concerns," said Ian O'Connor, a spokesman for the Inspector General's office, in an email.
It is ironic that Christie is coming under fire for his use of these funds. When Congress stalled passage of the Sandy relief bill in early 2013, Christie publicly blasted House Republicans and Speak of the House John Boehner.
Christie's office has called the audit a "conveniently timed announcement" and said, in a statement, that the "Stronger Than the Storm" campaign had been praised by the Obama administration and by HUD.
"Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly," Christie spokesman Colin Reed said in a statement. "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."
Also Monday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Christie administration abruptly canceled meetings with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop around the time the mayor said he would not endorse Christie in the November 2013 election. Fulop's name came up in emails released last week about the Fort Lee scandal; when asked if Bill Baroni, a Port Authority executive, had returned calls from the mayor of Fort Lee, David Wildstein, a Christie appointee, wrote, "Radio silence... His name comes right after Mayor Fulop."
[For the record, 2:28 p.m. PST Jan. 13: An earlier version of this post attributed Ian O'Connor's quote to a news release. Actually, it comes from an email he sent to the reporter.]