U.S. investigators are looking into whether embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie misused about $2 million in Superstorm Sandy relief funds for an ad campaign that put him in the spotlight in an election year, officials said on Monday.
Already enmeshed in a scandal over snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge, Christie, a likely 2016 Republican presidential contender, is now being audited by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency spokesman said.
The probe began after HUD received a request from Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, the spokesman said.
The inspector is focusing on a federally financed $25 million marketing campaign intended to draw visitors back to the Jersey Shore as the area struggled to rebuild from the damage unleashed by Sandy in late 2012. The campaign included a television commercial featuring Christie and his family that cost $2 million more than a competing bid that would not have featured them.
"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.
In a statement responding to the probe, Christie's office noted that HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan had lauded the campaign and suggested that Pallone's request for an investigation was motivated by political considerations.
"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," said Christie spokesman Colin Reed.
The winning ad, with the tag line that New Jersey was "Stronger than the Storm," aired the following spring as Christie headed into a re-election campaign to win a second term.
Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012. The 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.