Feds probing Christie’s spending on Sandy relief ads

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seen here speaking to residents of Moonachie, N.J. whose homes were damaged during Hurricane Sandy, is under investigation by federal officials for using relief funds to make TV commercials.
AP Photo/The Record (Bergen County NJ), Kevin R. Wexler

Updated at 11:47 a.m.

Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., already embroiled in a scandal over the George Washington Bridge lane closures last September, is also coming under investigation for using relief funds in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy on television ads to promote tourism to New Jersey.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., released a statement Monday that said the Housing and Urban Development’s Office of the Inspector General is launching a full-scale audit of how New Jersey sent the funds. Pallone sent a letter to HUD in August 2013 requesting an investigation into the spending because Christie’s administration awarded the contract for the television ads to a firm that charged $4.7 million, even though they received a bid for similar work that only cost $2.5 billion. At the time, HUD issued a waiver to the state allowing them to use $25 million in grant money for the television commercials.

“I commend the HUD Office of the Inspector General for investigating whether the state properly utilized taxpayer funds for this marketing campaign,” Pallone said in the statement.  “Working with my New Jersey colleagues, we had to fight hard to get the Sandy aid package passed by assuring others in Congress the funding was desperately needed and would be spent responsibly.  I also raised concerns that Governor Christie and his family appeared in taxpayer-funded advertisements during an election year.”

Particularly suspicious, Pallone said in the August letter, is how the two bids proposed to use – or not use – Christie in the ads, during a time when the governor was running for reelection.

“The winning bid proposed including Governor Chris Christie in the advertisements, while the lower cost proposal that was not selected did not,” Pallone wrote at the time. “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.  In these sensitive circumstances, even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided.”

But Christie spokesman Colin Reed defended the ads, saying the agency's audit was routine and wouldn't turn up anything negative.

“The Stronger Than The Storm campaign was just one part of the first action plan approved by the Obama Administration and developed with the goal of effectively communicating that the Jersey Shore was open for business during the first summer after Sandy.  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," Reed said in a statement.

Pallone is not the only lawmaker to suggest Christie steered the relief funds toward something that would benefit his image. During a November Congressional hearing on Superstorm Sandy relief before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., took Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to task for allowing federal relief funds to be spent on television advertising aimed at bringing tourists back to areas that were devastated by the storm.

"Some of these ads, people running for office put their mug all over these ads while they're in the middle of a political campaign…Do ya' think there might be a conflict of interest of there?" Paul asked. "It gives the whole thing a black eye," Paul concluded.

A week later, Paul told a radio host that Christie’s reelection victory “was, in large form, based on that he got a lot of federal money for his state.”

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.