Christie Faces Audit Over Use of Hurricane Relief Money

The commercials were paid for with money from a federal disaster relief package New Jersey received that included $25 million for a media campaign. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is conducting the audit, will look into how the contract was awarded and how funds have been used. An audit by the Inspector General’s office, conducted by accounting experts, is different from a criminal investigation, which is carried out by law enforcement personnel when there is a suspicion of official misconduct or corruption.

Calls for an audit were spurred by reports by The Asbury Park Press last year, which found that the public relations firm that won the contract, MWW Group, based in East Rutherford, charged $2 million more than a competitor that submitted a comparable proposal.

A key difference in the bids, the newspaper reported, was that the MWW Group proposal prominently featured the governor in the ads.

Following those reports, Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat and longtime critic of Mr. Christie, sent a letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development asking the agency to look into the matter.

“While promoting tourism at the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is certainly a worthy endeavor, recent reports have led me to believe that the state has irresponsibly misappropriated funding allocated by Congress from the Sandy aid package and taken advantage of this waiver for political purposes,” Mr. Pallone wrote in August.

On Monday, his office announced that it received word from the federal agency that it would open an audit on how the state used federal funds. It is expected to issue a report on the matter in several months.

“I commend the HUD Office of the Inspector General for investigating whether the state properly utilized taxpayer funds for this marketing campaign,” Mr. Pallone said in a statement.

The governor’s office called the inquiry “conveniently timed.”

“Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly,” said Colin Reed, a spokesman for Mr. Christie. “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.”

The federal audit comes as the administration is also under investigation by the United States attorney in New Jersey for its role in the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge last September. New Jersey lawmakers have also vowed to continue with their own review and are expected to issue more subpoenas to top officials in the Christie administration.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who is leading the probe in the legislature, said he expected to call on the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and his two-time campaign manager and former choice for state Republican Party chairman, Bill Stepien, to testify.

Mr. Wisniewski announced on Monday that he would lead “a newly formed special investigatory committee that will have subpoena power, utilize a special counsel and focus solely on investigating questions surrounding the decision to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.”

“We have made great strides in finding out what actually happened here with this threat to public safety and abuse of power, but so many questions remain unanswered,” he said in a statement.

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