The cost of Chris Christie's devotion to Dallas

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, talks with Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones, right, on the field as the teams warm up before an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
AP

There was a time that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and wife Mary Pat Foster were so poor that they would save up their vacation money to travel to Dallas for Cowboys games but still wouldn't be able to afford the parking.

"They had to park far enough away to walk without paying. Now, all I'm saying is that's a Cowboy fan," team owner Jerry Jones recently told ESPN's "NFL Insiders."

Times have changed. Christie, his wife and four children traveled to the Cowboys' most recent game in a private jet--paid for by Jones--and watched from Jones' private stadium suite. It's impossible to know exactly how much he paid to bring in the Christie family--especially since he owns the jet--but a private plane for a trip like that can run about $40,000, according to an estimate from JetSuite, a private charter company.

The owner's club suite would have run between $65,000 and $80,000 at the Jan. 4 Cowboys game against the Detroit Lions, according to the Suite Experience Group, which manages suites at various professional sports stadiums. The full suite package would have included 20 seats, all the food and drink the occupants can consume, and the VIP parking passes Christie would have coveted in his more frugal days.

The whopping overall price tag, which could run well over $100,000, is far more than he might have paid on his own. One commercial round-trip plane ticket from New Jersey to Texas could run from $600 to $1,000, while game seats went on sale for $125 to $1,000, according to TicketSource.com. Parking would have set Christie back $75 and food would have run at least $20. Multiply that all (except the parking) by six to take the whole family along.

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But Christie can probably expect the high-end experience all over again, if Jones has his way. "He's part of our mojo," the Cowboys owner said Tuesday during a weekly radio interview in Dallas. "I want him there all the way." (He also said on NFL Insiders that if Christie's mojo can propel the Cowboys to a Superbowl win this year, "I'm for him being president of the United States.)

The January 11 playoff game against the Green Bay Packers is a slightly less extravagant affair --the private jet would only run about $25,000, according to JetSuite, while a representative for the Packers said a champion suite including 20 tickets, two parking passes and a food and beverage package will cost $17,600 or $18,900. That's still far more than his family would pay if they went privately, with airfare running between $730 and $1,200--and he would have to fly in and out of Milwaukee rather than Green Bay. Tickets for the game range from $160 to $3,591 on Ticketmaster, and parking costs $35 at Lambeau Field.

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Christie has no problem deflecting the naysayers who argue he's being disloyal to New Jersey--or at least the tri-state area--by rooting for a Texas team. But he's running into a bit more trouble with ethics watchdogs who say that the governor has violated state ethics rules by accepting gifts from Jones.

The Code of Conduct for the Governor, which was adopted as an executive order under former New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey, states, "The Governor may accept gifts, favors, services, gratuities, meals, lodging or travel expenses from relatives or personal friends that are paid for with personal funds."

And that's the rule Christie's staffers have in mind when they respond to questions about the presence of Christie and his lucky orange sweater in luxury stadium suites around the country.

"Governor Christie attended the game last Sunday as a guest of Jerry Jones, who provided both the ticket and transportation at no expense to New Jersey taxpayers," Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said.

But a later executive order signed by Christie himself in 2010 states, "all public officials must avoid conduct that violates the public trust or creates an appearance of impropriety."

One venture that's raising questions of propriety is a 2013 Port Authority contract--which is jointly controlled by the governors of New York and New Jersey--which was awarded to Legends Hospitality, a company that is jointly owned the Cowboys, the New York Yankees and Checketts Partners Investment Fund, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Susana Guerrero, the executive director of the state ethics commission (who was appointed by Christie) told a New Jersey newspaper, "I personally don't see anything contrary to the ethics laws...He's not going in his official state capacity. He's going for entertainment, not as 'the governor of New Jersey.'"

Other ethics watchdogs don't agree. The American Democracy Legal Fund, which does opposition research on behalf of Democrats, has asked the state ethics commission to investigate.

"It appears that Governor Christie has applied an extraordinarily broad definition of friend to include virtually anyone who shares his love for the Dallas Cowboys in order to circumvent the executive order," said Anne Weismann, the chief counsel at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I think it's even more problematic, given the more significant and extensive business dealings that Jerry Jones and his enterprises have with the state of New Jersey."

She would advise Christie not to accept any future trips from Jones, and said that depending on New Jersey's rules, if Christie is found to have violated ethics laws he could have to reimburse the cost of the trip. Christie was Jones' guest at three games, total, although his office says Jones only provided transportation for one.

But other ethics experts say that what matters most is transparency. Just because a person occupies a high public office doesn't mean he shouldn't have friends who happen to be rich. Christie isn't hiding from anyone in that orange sweater, and he's been open about his friendship with Jones, telling NJ.com, "I've become friends with Jerry over the last five years. And you know, we were together at the game together in Philadelphia two weeks ago. And then Mary Pat, myself and the children all went down to Dallas this weekend, and we went to the game yesterday [December 21]."

Richard Kelsey, assistant dean at George Mason University Law School, told CBS News, "In my theory, the American people should see transparently what gifts are being given, understand what their value is, and then they can decide whether its proper." Kelsey said, "Let's face it--we cannot un-see Chris Christie jumping up and down with Jerry Jones in that Lions game, so it's not as if he's hiding this relationship."

But he added that if Christie helped get Jones' firm the Port Authority contract, there could be ethics issues at hand. As far as the question of whether he accepted a gift from a friend, "I think he's on fairly strong ground," Kelsey said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.