Federal officials are investigating whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads that starred him and his family, according to Rep. Frank Pallone's office.
In an August letter, Pallone, D-Monmouth, Middlesex, asked the inspector general in the Department of Housing and Urban Development to look into how Christie chose to spend the marketing money approved by the department.
Pallone wrote that he was concerned the contract was awarded to a firm that is charging more than $2 million more than the next lowest bidder to develop the marketing plan.
The winning firm is being paid $4.7 million for its work, Pallone wrote, while a comparable firm proposed billing the state $2.5 million for similar work.
"This large discrepancy between the competing proposals raises concerns as to whether these federal funds are being spent in the most cost effective manner, and should be reviewed by your office," Pallone wrote.
Christie's office released a statement late Monday morning, saying “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," according to the 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.”
Pallone made the announcement in a statement Monday, commending the HUD Office of the Inspector General for investigating whether the state properly utilized taxpayer funds for this marketing campaign.
“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," he said. "I also raised concerns that Governor Christie and his family appeared in taxpayer-funded advertisements during an election year.”
The revelations come just days after news of the so-called 'Bridgegate' scandal broke, and the release of emails involving the governor’s now-fired deputy chief of staff, who joked about causing hours-long traffic jams in Fort Lee after several lanes of the George Washington Bridge were suddenly closed last September.
A state Assembly committee plans to probe the controversy this week, issue additional subpoenas and call more of the principal figures in the scandal to testify.
Christie, in a marathon press conference Thursday, apologized for the incident and said the emails showed a “callous indifference’’ that shocked him. Christie said he knew nothing about the lane closures until reports surfaced.
Christie fired the aide, Bridget Anne Kelley, calling her actions “stupid.’’
Later Thursday, David Wildstein, the former Port Authority executive who quit under mounting pressure over the Fort Lee incident, appeared before the state Assembly’s Transportation Public Works and Independent Authorities committee, which is investigating the lane closures, but refused to answer questions. Wildstein was held in contempt by a unanimous vote of the committee and cited with a misdemeanor charge.
Also, the State Attorney General’s Office announced Thursday that an investigation will open to determine if any federal laws were broken.