WASHINGTON -- As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tries to control the damage from a major bridge scandal and a federal investigation involving his top aides, federal auditors are launching a separate inquiry into his administration's use of federal disaster recovery funds for an ad campaign.
The auditors are probing why the Christie administration awarded a lucrative $23 million contract to a well-connected firm to produce tourism ads starring the governor and his family.
The Christie administration is already under federal investigation since revelations last week that key deputies appeared to needlessly close lanes serving a major bridge and thoroughfare in North Jersey. Emails released to the news media last week showed the aides joking about enjoying the ensuing traffic tie-up in Fort Lee, N.J. Investigators are looking at whether the closing was part of a plot to retaliate against the town's Democratic mayor, who had declined to endorse Mr. Christie's re-election bid.
And Democrats in the New Jersey state Assembly announced Monday that they are launching a special investigative committee to question more Christie administration members about the bridge closures.
The timing of the new federal probe, focused on Hurricane Sandy federal recovery funds used for a tourism marketing campaign, appears coincidental.
In August, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., called use of the funds for the ad campaign "extremely troubling" and asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general to look into why Mr. Christie had approved using Sandy recovery funds to highlight himself during an election year. The request came on the heels of an article about the marketing contract's high cost in a local paper, the Asbury Park Press.
Last week, as Mr. Christie was fielding a flood of criticism and questions about his knowledge of the snarled bridge traffic, the inspector general's office notified Mr. Pallone that it had found enough credible evidence to begin a full audit of the tourism ads.
"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 Monday. "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."
The New Jersey Economic Development Authority, a Cabinet-level agency in the Christie administration that oversees state and federal funds meant to encourage commerce and economic revitalization, awarded the contract.
The firm that won the contract, MWW, said it welcomes the HUD inspector general's review because news accounts have spread misinformation about the contract award. "It will show that MWW's proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign," MWW spokesman Bill Murray said.
"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 company briefly considered musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi as possible stars for their ad campaign, but there were complications with hiring the famous New Jersey natives. Both were touring in the spring months, when the ads were scheduled to be produced, and the firm was concerned about the logistics of coordinating with the singers and their schedules, a company official said.
The MWW then recommended a set of concepts that would make Mr. Christie the star of the ad campaign, and the Economic Development Authority approved the strategy.
The cost comparison is in dispute between critics and defenders of the deal. Mr. Pallone and other Democrats said the MWW contract cost $2 million more than the next-highest bidder, a firm that had done prominent tourism marketing ads in New York and New Orleans, featuring comedian Billy Crystal and musician Harry Connick Jr.
The Christie administration has said the overall MMW contract cost more because it included significantly more work, including labor-intensive, localized events.