TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Federal officials are taking a closer look at how the Christie administration spent $25 million to promote the Jersey shore in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.'s office said Monday the inspector general at the Housing and Urban Development Department will audit the campaign, which featured commercials in which Gov. Chris Christie and his family appeared.
HUD Probes NJ's 'Stronger Than The Storm' Ad Campaign
The ads promoted tourism along the Jersey shore and ran on TV, radio and online.
HUD's Inspector General's Office conducted a basic review of the issue at Pallone's urging last year. The New Jersey Democrat said the office said it found enough evidence to justify a full audit of federal funds.
"I just thought it smelled. In other words, this is in the middle of an election campaign," Pallone told WCBS 880's Alex Silverman. "Every dollar that's wasted is unfortunate because it was hard enough to get the money."
HUD Probes NJ's 'Stronger Than The Storm' Ad Campaign
The administration paid $4.7 million to a politically connected public relations company over another firm that had bid $2 million less. The winning bidder proposed using Christie in the ads, while the other bidder did not.
"They wouldn't put him and his family in the ad and so he chose the more expensive bid," Pallone said.
At a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in November to review the ongoing recovery from Sandy, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) also questioned whether storm relief funds should have been spent on the ads.
"Some of these ads, people running for office put their mug all over these ads while they are in the middle of a political campaign," Paul said. "In New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office."
Christie has defended the ads, saying the purpose of the campaign was to let people know the Jersey shore had recovered from Sandy and was open for business.
Christie spokesman Colin Reed said the federal government approved the campaign and that the administration expects a review will find it was effective.
"Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly," Reed said in a statement. "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."
Public relations firm MWW released the following statement Monday in response to the "Stronger Than The Storm" probe.
"Given widely inaccurate reporting on Stronger than the Storm, we welcome the Inspector General's report. It will show that MWW's proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign. The decision to include the governor was arrived at after the contract was awarded, based on timing, availability, and federal expenditure rules. Assertions to the contrary are simple incorrect. The IG's audit will also show that MWW's final proposal came in at $22.255 million, while the runner-up's proposal was $23.725 million. "
Meanwhile, New Jersey lawmakers plan to keep pressing for answers on the role that politics played in the closing of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in September.
Documents released last week showed Christie's aides appeared to engineer lane closures at the bridge in September for political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie for re-election.
Christie has apologized but denied involvement. He fired a top aide and cut ties with a campaign adviser. A key lawmaker said last week that both could receive subpoenas soon.
THERE'S BLOOD IN THE WATER
The last 10 days have raised questions about whether Christie, who is considered a leading candidate to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016, is fit for higher office. The ongoing scandals have led to calls for investigations and some are wondering if those probes can lead to calls for impeachment, CBS 2's Marcia Kramer reported.
"I think he can weather this storm -- if nothing else comes out tying him directly either to knowledge or obviously orchestrating the thing, or being involved in the cover-up," political consultant Jeanne Zaino said.
Zaino is an Iona College professor with no partisan bent, but political consultants' opinions differ depending on their political affiliations, Kramer reported.
"Chris Christie has damaged his brand probably beyond repair. It does not mean he can't be the Republican nominee, but he certainly cant be the no-nonsense straight talking, non politician politician," Democratic political consultant Mike Morey said.
"Chris Christie is a tremendous governor who just won re-election by majority. I think you have to remember that. This was a bad incident for sure, but he handled it as well as he possibly could and if he continues to handle it this way I think he has a long and bright future," Republican political consultant Michael McKeon said.
With so many questions still unanswered, Christie will have two more opportunities to reassure the public and the prosecutors -- in his State of the State speech Tuesday and at his innauguration next week.
And a measure of how toxic he's become will also be gauged He's scheduled to make a series of fundraising appearances in Florida this weekend, Kramer reported.
If the money doesn't roll in his appeal as a headliner will be damaged, which is not a good thing in a year with 36 governor's races and the need to raise money for GOP candidates
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