TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie faces a federal investigation over his use of $25 million of Hurricane Sandy relief money for a commercial he starred in promoting tourism at the New Jersey shore.
The inspector general’s office at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will audit the marketing campaign, Congressman Frank Pallone, a Democrat from Long Branch who requested the probe in August, said in a statement Monday.
It is the second federal investigation of Christie’s political activities disclosed within a week. A U.S. attorney is examining his administration’s involvement in the creation of a four-day traffic quagmire in the town of a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse the Republican governor’s re-election.
Democratic lawmakers have said the “Stronger Than the Storm” ads gave the 51-year-old Christie free publicity as he campaigned for a second term. He beat State Sen. Barbara Buono in the November election by 22 percentage points.
“At issue is the bidding process for the campaign and released documents which raise questions as to why the state chose to award the contract to a firm that charged the state over $2 million more than a comparable bid for similar work,” Pallone said.
Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the governor, didn’t immediately return an email or telephone call seeking comment on the Sandy money investigation. HUD spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said the agency has no comment on the matter.
The governor soon faces several crucial moments. His annual agenda-setting State of the State address Tuesday will be followed Jan. 16 by a special session of the Democratic-led Assembly to consider extending its investigatory power into the September tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee and Manhattan. Federal prosecutors also are reviewing the matter.
On Jan. 18, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is to appear at Florida fundraisers for several candidates, Susan Hepworth, a spokeswoman for the organization, confirmed by email Sunday.
Three days later, Christie will be sworn in to his second term followed by a party on Liberty Island, likely absent four casualties: Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff he fired after emails disclosed Jan. 8 showed she said it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” before officials shut lanes; Bill Stepien, the campaign manager with whom Christie cut ties last week; and Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, appointees who resigned last month from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge operator.
In an almost two-hour news conference in his Trenton office Jan. 9, Christie apologized for his allies’ involvement and said he had been betrayed. His eyes bloodshot and teary, he said he was sleepless, “embarrassed and humiliated.”
In the emails and text messages obtained by media including Bloomberg, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich asked Port Authority officials whether the traffic tie-ups were a punishment. Christie has said his ability to attract Democratic support is a lesson for federal politicians. Sokolich, however, hadn’t followed dozens of others in his party in backing Christie for governor.
Lanes were closed for four days, turning the typical 30- minute drive across the bridge into a trip of four hours or more, stranding commuters and emergency medical crews. A 91- year-old woman who suffered cardiac arrest died later, according to a letter among Fort Lee officials.
Christie last week repeated what he told reporters in December: that he had no personal knowledge of the scheme. The governor could possibly be impeached if lawmakers discover that he knew about the traffic jam or the effort to cover it up, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chairman of the panel investigating the traffic controversy, told NBC News.
Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto, a Democrat from Secaucus, said he will call his chamber into special session Jan. 16 to consider reauthorizing subpoena power.
The Sandy investigation had its genesis last year. Pallone said in his August letter to David Montoya, HUD’s inspector general, that the winning ad firm was being paid $4.7 million for its work, while another firm proposed billing $2.5 million. The winning bid included Christie in the ads. The cheaper proposal didn’t.
“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 response, a basic review was conducted, according to Pallone’s statement. Last week, Montoya’s office notified him that they had found enough evidence to justify a full audit, he said.