The scandal over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge aside, a separate investigation into New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s use of Hurricane Sandy funds involves a former Christie aide who has been embroiled in several of his past controversies.
Federal officials are looking into an advertising campaign New Jersey commissioned which was aimed at encouraging tourism to the state after the devastating storm, but which favorably featured the governor and his family in 2013 when he was up for re-election.
The ad campaign was awarded to the East Rutherford-based public relations firm MWW, which raised eyebrows for two reasons: its reported $4.7 million bid was about $2 million higher more than a competing bidder, which apparently didn’t seek to give the Christies the same exposure. And, according to the Asbury Park Press, the woman tapped to lead a six-person panel to award the contract was Michele Brown, a former Christie aide with whom he has a complicated history.
Brown is currently the Christie-appointed chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. She was a top aide to Christie during his tenure as U.S. attorney, a post he held from 2002 to 2008.
In August 2009, while Christie was running for governor, the New Jersey Network reported that he had in 2007 loaned Brown $46,000 without disclosing it in his tax return or other documents. Christie subsequently chalked it up to helping a friend in need and insisted she was in no way helping his campaign. But the New York Times was skeptical: it spoke with federal law enforcement officials who, the paper reported in October 2009, said she was interceding to handle Christie’s opponent’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for travel and expense records of Christie and Brown. The Times reported that the officials, who were not named, suggested she “used her position in two significant and possibly improper ways to try to aid Mr. Christie in his run for governor.”
Brown told the Times the allegations were “outrageous and inaccurate,” and Christie’s campaign reportedly held to its assertion that she wasn’t helping. There appears to have been no smoking gun to prove otherwise. She stepped down from her position at the prosecutor’s office that summer.
Also in August 2009, news broke that Christie was in 2005 pulled over and received three citations for speeding, driving with an unregistered car and driving with an uninsured car. Christie had reportedly told the cop he was a U.S. attorney. He ended up paying a fine. A Christie spokesman confirmed to New Jersey 101.5 FM radio that one of the people in the car with Christie — along with his wife and children — was Brown.
In October 2009, the Associated Press obtained travel records revealing that Christie “regularly spent beyond federal guidelines on business travel while U.S. attorney” — including repeated $400-per-night stays at luxury hotels. During trips he took in 2007 and 2008, the AP reported, Brown had “also exceeded the guidelines after Christie approved her requests for rooms in the same five-star hotels where he was booked.”
In an article published Monday by CNN, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) confirmed the probe over the Sandy funds. He had written a letter in August asking the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate how Christie chose to spend the funds, and said federal officials found sufficient basis to launch a broader inquiry.
It is the latest of several Christie controversies involving Brown. It comes at a critical juncture for one of the GOP’s top political talents as he simultaneously seeks to calm a firestorm over his office’s ties to a scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. He is a rumored 2016 presidential candidate.
MWW issued a statement Monday welcoming the investigation and forcefully rejecting suggestions that it acted improperly with the “Stronger than the Storm” campaign.
“Given widely inaccurate reporting on Stronger than the Storm, we welcome the Inspector General’s report,” the firm said. “It will show that MWW’s proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign. 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 simply incorrect.”