NEW YORK — The week of headaches for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues: Now he faces questions about whether his office improperly used Superstorm Sandy aid funds for political purposes.
The inspector general at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will audit how New Jersey spent $25 million of Sandy aid funds, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who asked the inspector general to look into the issue in August.
The probe comes days after Christie became engulfed in a political scandal when emails surfaced implying that top aides orchestrated the closure of lanes on the busy George Washington Bridge and snarled traffic in a town whose mayor had declined to support the governor’s re-election bid.
At issue in the new probe are funds from a disaster-recovery block grant.
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New Jersey had received permission to spend funds on a marketing campaign to encourage tourism to the Jersey Shore. But Pallone’s office says that the contract to develop the marketing plan was awarded to a firm that charged $4.7 million for its work. The next-lowest bidder proposed only $2.5 million.
The winning bid proposed including Christie in the ads, Pallone said in the August letter asking for an audit. The lower-cost proposal did not include a Christie ad.
“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,” Pallone wrote. “In these sensitive circumstances, even the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided.”
Pallone’s office said Monday that the Inspector General’s Office had found enough evidence to justify a “full-scale audit” of the state’s usage of federal funds.
“We received a request from Congress and are performing an audit to address those concerns,” said Ian O’Connor, a spokesman for the Inspector General’s Office, in a release.
It is ironic that Christie is coming under fire for his use of those funds. When Congress stalled passage of the Sandy relief bill in early 2013, Christie publicly blasted House Republicans and Speak of the House John Boehner.
Christie’s office has called the audit a “conveniently timed announcement” and said, in a statement, that the “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign had been praised by the Obama administration and by HUD.
Also Monday, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Christie administration abruptly canceled meetings with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop around the time the mayor said he would not endorse Christie in the November 2013 election.
Fulop’s name came up in emails released last week about the Fort Lee scandal.