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 says 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.
"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 a letter sent to the inspector general.
The investigation announcement comes just days after Christie said he was "blindsided" by revelations that members of his Administration pressed for "traffic problems" to punish the mayor of a town who had refused to endorse him.
Christie publicly apologized and announced the firing of top aide Bridget Anne Kelly.
HUD's Inspector General's Office conducted a basic review of the issue at Pallone's urging last year. The New Jersey Democrat claims the office says it found enough evidence to justify a full audit of federal funds.
"This was money that could have been used for all Sandy purposes to help people in their homes and businesses," Pallone said.
The administration paid $4.7 million to MWW, a politically-connected public relations company over the SIGMA Group, another firm that had bid $2 million less.
Pallone believes the state irresponsibly misappropriated Sandy relief funds. According to Pallone, the winning bid also proposed using Christie, who was running for re-election at the time, while the losing bid submitted by the SIGMA Group did not.
"You can't look at a contract like that and see a $2.5 million price differential and not wonder if something fishy was happening," said Shannon Morris, president and owner of SIGMA.
MWW refuted Pallone's claims however, stating their proposal did not mention or even suggest using the governor in any ads:
“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. That means MWW came in at the lower overall bid by $1.47 million and offered the lowest hourly rates of all bidders. STTS was one of the most successful campaigns in the history of New Jersey and had a material impact on the economic recovery of the Jersey Shore."
NBC10 reached out to Congressman Pallone's office for a response to the statement. A spokesman for the congressman said that they stand by their initial claims.
The Governor's spokesperson Colin Reed released this statement regarding the audit:
“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.”
The audit will take several months to complete.