Critics have accused Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., of promoting himself during his reelection campaign in TV ads paid for with Superstorm Sandy relief funds. As it turns out, the federal government granted not only New Jersey, but also other states, special waivers to spend tens of millions of dollars in disaster aid on TV ads promoting tourism - a purpose that would otherwise be ineligible under the law.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved New Jersey's plan to spend $25 million in disaster aid on ads to promote the Jersey Shore and encourage tourism after Sandy devastated the region in 2012. Other states receiving special HUD waivers include New York, which reportedly planned to spend $40 million tax dollars on an ad campaign after Sandy called "New York State Open for Business"; and Louisiana and Mississippi, which received waivers to promote tourism after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Last August, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., called for HUD's inspector general (IG) to investigate the contract and bidding process used by Christie for the marketing campaign. Pallone said he "questions whether Governor Christie took advantage of the federal funds for his personal political gain." The IG told CBS News on Friday that it is conducting a "routine audit" of New Jersey's use of the funds to "examine whether the State administered its Tourism Marketing Program in accordance with applicable departmental and Federal requirements."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is a vocal critic of the practice of HUD granting the waivers for disaster relief to be spent on tourism in the first place.
"It is not immediately clear why federal disaster funds are financing ad campaigns," Coburn wrote in a May 20, 2013, letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. "The federal government and states should be putting disaster aid funds to work helping people who were directly affected."
HUD defended the use of disaster relief tax dollars for TV ads.
"Tourism support can be a useful recovery tool in a damaged regional economy that depends on tourism for many of its jobs and tax revenues," HUD Acting Assistant Secretary Elilot Mincberg wrote in response to Coburn. For the post-Sandy waivers granted to New Jersey and New York, HUD says, "In each case, the state indicated how tourism was critical to the economic recovery in the impacted areas."
The IG says that its current audit has no connection to the scandal over the Christie administration's seemingly politically-motivated closing of a commuter bridge and will not be impacted by it.
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