Federal Probe of Chris Christie’s Tourism Ads Could Make Bridgegate Look Like an Afterthought

In case you thought it couldn’t get worse for the New Jersey governor.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves the Borough Hall in Fort Lee where he apologized to Mayor Mayor Mark Sokolich on January 9, 2014 in Fort Lee, New Jersey. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Jan. 13, 2014, 3:42 a.m.

Here’s one way Chris Christie can get every­one to stop talk­ing about his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s George Wash­ing­ton Bridge scan­dal: find him­self un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

Rep. Frank Pal­lone, D-N.J., tells CNN on Monday that the feds are in­vest­ig­at­ing Christie’s use of $25 mil­lion in gov­ern­ment aid fol­low­ing su­per­storm Sandy. At is­sue is an ad cam­paign the state launched after the storm to try and bring back tour­ists. The cam­paign the state launched last April, which prom­in­ently fea­tured the gov­ernor and his fam­ily, gave $4.7 mil­lion to the win­ning ad firm. That’s a little more than $2 mil­lion above than the next-low­est bid­der. But that lower bid’s cam­paign did not in­clude the Christies.

All of this is made more com­plic­ated (and per­haps more fishy) be­cause 2013 was an elec­tion year for the gov­ernor. And the ad cam­paign (which played in swing-states like Pennsylvania) po­ten­tially gave Christie more ex­pos­ure for a pos­sible 2016 pres­id­en­tial run.

“This was money that could have dir­ectly been used for Sandy re­cov­ery. And, as you know, many of my con­stitu­ents still haven’t got­ten the money that is owed them to re­build their homes or raise their homes or to help,” Pal­lone told CNN.

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He isn’t the only politi­cian to speak out against the Sandy ad. “In New Jer­sey, $25 mil­lion was spent on ads that in­cluded some­body run­ning for polit­ic­al of­fice,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said last Novem­ber. “And that’s why, when people are try­ing to do good and try­ing to use the tax­pay­er’s money wisely, they’re of­fen­ded to see our money spent on polit­ic­al ads. That’s just of­fens­ive.” Paul, of course, is an­oth­er po­ten­tial can­did­ate for the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion in 2016.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­duc­ted a pre­lim­in­ary re­view of the spend­ing, and ap­par­ently found enough to go on to turn it in­to a full-scale in­vest­ig­a­tion which will take months to com­plete.

This isn’t the first time com­plaints have been raised over the ad cam­paign, which in­cludes Christie say­ing, “We’re stronger than the storm,” in­to the cam­era. And the is­sue may ac­tu­ally be about more than just money.

The As­bury Park Press first re­por­ted the cost is­sues with the ad cam­paign last sum­mer. But the pa­per also noted that the win­ning ad firm, MWW, has much more polit­ic­al muscle in the state than the los­ing firm, headed by the Sigma Group. The Park Press found that MWW has a his­tory of dona­tions to both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats.

But, as the pa­per later re­vealed, MWW hired a former state Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cial just be­fore mak­ing the Sandy ad bid. The ad firm tried to sell its mar­ket­ing on this point, telling New Jer­sey of­fi­cials that their new GOP hire had “strong re­la­tion­ships over the years with many of Gov­ernor Christie’s closest ad­visers as well as many of his Cab­in­et ap­pointees.”

Christie’s of­fice denied any wrong­do­ing last Au­gust.

“It’s simply a false nar­rat­ive,” said Christie spokes­man Mi­chael Drewniak. “The con­tract was giv­en on the mer­its in the same ex­haust­ively ob­ject­ive pro­cess that is used for all state pub­lic con­tracts. The eval­u­ation com­mit­tee re­port bears that out.”

It may seem ob­vi­ously crazy to try to use loose polit­ic­al ties to help sway a con­tract worth mil­lions of dol­lars. But, just a few weeks ago, it also would have seemed ob­vi­ously crazy for New Jer­sey of­fi­cials to shut down traffic lanes to pun­ish a may­or for not giv­ing the gov­ernor a polit­ic­al en­dorse­ment. In this at­mo­sphere, Christie may not get the be­ne­fit of the doubt.

If polit­ic­al ties and cost are not enough of a head­ache for Christie, the per­son in charge of the team that se­lec­ted the ad has a rich and tricky his­tory with the gov­ernor. The wo­man who led the six-per­son pan­el that de­cided to give the ad con­tract to MWW is Michele Brown, the chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer of the New Jer­sey Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity and a former top aide to Christie. Brown is a former fed­er­al pro­sec­utor who got some un­wanted at­ten­tion after tak­ing a $46,000 loan from her boss, then-U.S. At­tor­ney Chris Christie. Brown resigned as the second-rank­ing of­fi­cial in the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Au­gust 2009 over com­plaints about her fin­an­cial ties to Christie, who was then run­ning for gov­ernor. Fed­er­al of­fi­cials in­vest­ig­ated wheth­er Brown used her pro­sec­utor’s job to help Christie’s gubernat­ori­al cam­paign in 2009. 

Christie, once he be­came gov­ernor, ap­poin­ted Brown to the eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment post, des­pite her lack of back­ground in that field. That job comes with a $225,000 an­nu­al salary, more than the gov­ernor makes.

In short: if you thought the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge scan­dal was a con­fus­ing mess for Christie, you’ve got to ad­mit that things just got much trick­i­er. And if you thought that Christie’s polit­ic­al fu­ture was im­per­illed last week, you’ve gotta be feel­ing pretty good about your judg­ment right now.

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