Updated, Jan. 16th.
Federal investigators have some questions for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his staff—and it’s not over the revenge traffic scandal that dominated last week’s headlines.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general will investigate whether the governor’s office improperly used federal aid money after superstorm Sandy for political gain, NBC News has confirmed.
If wrongdoing is found, it would be a major blow to the governor’s national reputation that was founded in part on his handling of the recovery efforts following superstorm Sandy, not to mention the second massive scandal surrounding the governor and his staff in just a couple of weeks.
Tourism ads for the New Jersey after Sandy prominently featured the governor and his family; they were widely criticized as being political ads for a governor heading toward re-election.
New Jersey Democrat Rep. Frank Pallone tipped off the feds in an August letter that the bidding process turned down cheaper ads that didn’t feature Christie and his family in favor of ones that did and requested an investigation.
On Sunday, he told CNN that the inspector general’s preliminary review had concluded that there was enough evidence for a full-scale investigation; their audit will take several months.
“They have found enough evidence to justify a full-scale audit of the state’s usage of the federal funds,” Pallone’s office said on Monday in a released statement.
The Housing and Urban Development later issued a statement noting that their review was an audit and not an investigation, as Pallone’s office had heralded it.
“This is an audit and not an investigation of the procurement process,” they said.
Christie spokesman Colin Reed issued a statement Monday morning, hoping to quash the second budding scandal.
“Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly,” he wrote. “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.”
But on the heels of ‘Bridgegate,’ it’s unlikely that this investigation will be written off as routine.
“This time, he’s outdone himself,” the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s editorial board declared in August when the ads premiered. “This time, he siphoned off money that was intended for victims of Sandy to promote himself in a series of TV ads. That is a new low, one that should play prominently in his campaign for re-election.”
Christie’s approval ratings climbed to sky-high levels following Sandy.
The governor—in his iconic blue fleece—was everywhere, a constant reminder of his hands-on, straight-shooter leadership style. While the image of him embracing President Barack Obama just days before his national election earned him the ire of his party, it also brought him national recognition as a bipartisan leader who ignored partisan bickering in the time of a crisis. But a misuse of relief funds could rewrite the story of Christie’s Sandy—instead of images of the governor embracing old ladies who had lost their homes, the media could end up depicting a governor who used that aid money for political ads
At the time, the governor’s spokesman said the decision to include Christie and his family was a creative—not a political—one.
Last week, news broke that the governor’s staff had orchestrated a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee as political retribution. On Thursday, Christie held a nearly two-hour long press conference announcing that he’d cut two aides and apologizing profusely for the revenge traffic he said he knew nothing about.