New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a press conference last week responding to allegations that his office orchestrated bridge lane closings as political payback.Mel Evans/AP
Federal investigators are looking into whether embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie misused about $2 million in Superstorm Sandy relief funds for an ad campaign that put him in the spotlight during an election year, a lawmaker said on Monday.
Already enmeshed in a scandal over snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge, Christie, a rising star in the Republican Party, is now being audited by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat.
The inspector is focusing on a federally financed $25 million Jersey shore marketing campaign that included a television commercial featuring Christie and his family. The ad campaign cost $2 million more than a competing bid would have cost without the Christie family, according to the congressman.
"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 said in an Aug. 8, 2013, letter requesting the investigation.
"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," he wrote.
The winning ad, with the tag line that New Jersey was "stronger than the storm," aired in the spring as Christie headed into the campaign for his second term as governor — a race he easily won.
On Oct. 29, 2012, Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast. The historic storm killed at least 159 people and damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes, many in Pallone's district on the Jersey shore, where the storm made landfall.
"Had Governor Christie chosen the less expensive firm, $2.2 million in federal disaster aid could have potentially been directed elsewhere, for example, to provide 44 Sandy-impacted homeowners $50,000 grants to raise their homes," Pallone said in a press release on Monday.
The governor’s office denied Pallone’s allegations in a statement obtained by Al Jazeera.
“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," read a statement from the governor's spokesman, Colin Reed. "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.”
News of the audit arrives in the shadow of a scandal dubbed "Bridge-gate" by tabloids, in which a massive traffic jam was allegedly orchestrated by Christie's staff in September, apparently as political payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, who didn't endorse Christie for reelection.
Christie, a likely contender for the White House in 2016, last week fired a top aide who called for the closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge and has denied knowledge of the scheme.
On Monday, another alleged scandal emerged, in which high-ranking New Jersey officials are said to have canceled meetings with Steve Fulop, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City, because, Fulop says, he also would not endorse Christie for reelection.
Jersey City released emails and texts messages about the cancellations. Christie's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, according to the AP.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press