New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is now facing a federal investigation for alleged misappropriation of Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads in which he and his family featured at a time in which he was running for reelection.
Congress allocated a sum of $25 million for the Sandy aid package which Christie allegedly used for a controversial Jersey Shore "Stronger than the Storm" ad campaign that featured his family.
The ads sparked a controversy in the state at a time he was running for reelection.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) told CNN Sunday that following an initial review of the matter, the office of the inspector general of the Housing and Urban Development has notified him that it agrees the matter warrants a "full-blown" federal investigation.
Pallone said: "There's reason to believe there's a problem here."
He told CNN: "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."
In August, Pallone, who represents the northern Shore region of New Jersey, petitioned the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development about the "Stronger than the Storm" ads.
Part of the letter read:
While promoting tourism at the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is certainly a worthy endeavor, recent reports have led me to believe that the state has irresponsibly misappropriated funding allocated by Congress from the Sandy aid package and taken advantage of this waiver for political purposes. I respectfully request that you review and investigate the contract, bidding process utilized by the State of New Jersey, and appropriateness of the content of this marketing campaign.
Pallone alleged irregularities in the bidding process for the ads.
His questioned the Christie administration's decision to award the ad project to a firm with a more expensive pitch.
According to CNN, the bid by the firm that won was $4.7 million while another presented a cost of $2.5 million.
The significant difference it seems was that the more expensive pitch presented an idea to feature Christie's family while the less expensive did not.
The ad which showed Christie saying that New Jersey was "stronger than the storm," came at a time that Christie was running for reelection as governor.
Critics immediately pointed out that Christie starring in taxpayer-funded ads at a time he was running for reelection involves an essential conflict of interest.
In a statement released Monday, Christie's office said that the ad campaign was part of a plan approved by the Obama administration to showcase New Jersey's business and tourism potentials as part of recovery effort.
The statement 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.
Christie's overwhelming victory at the last election was due largely to voter approval of his handling of the Hurricane Sandy disaster that hit his state and New York in 2012.
His praise of President Barack Obama's response to the disaster brought him in conflict with Republicans.
The rift worsened after he refused to campaign for Republican nominee Mitt Romney at the height to the 2012 presidential campaign.
Christie's aides have tried to fend off criticism about his administration's use of the federal funds for the commercials.
According to Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak, "It's pretty hard to argue that (the Christies) are in a uniquely qualified position to tell a very wide audience beyond New Jersey that our state and our Shore are open for business."
The latest allegations come at a time that the governor is already neck-deep in trouble
Recently released emails reveal that his staff and political appointees at the Port Authority had apparently engineered closures of the access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in a political payback scheme allegedly targeted at Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee who refused to endorse Christie's reelection bid.
The bridge scandal is now also under federal investigation.
It remains to be seen what more the embattled governor has to say in self-defense when he delivers his State of the State address.
Calls for investigation of Christie’s use of the Hurricane Sandy funds came not only from Democrats but also from Republicans.
ABC News reports that last year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan: "In New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office. You think there might be a conflict of interest there?"
Paul added: "People running for office put their mug all over these ads while they're in the middle of a political campaign... It gives a little bit of a black eye to something."