Federal audit begins on contract process for N.J.’s ‘Stronger than the Storm’ ads

 Still image from the 'Stronger than the Storm' campaign ad that featured the family of N.J. Gov. Chris Christie.

Still image from the 'Stronger than the Storm' campaign ad that featured the family of N.J. Gov. Chris Christie.

Federal officials are looking into how New Jersey awarded the contract to create ads for last year’s “Stronger than the Storm” campaign, which were the centerpiece of efforts to bring back visitors after Superstorm Sandy.

The ads featured New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the beach with his family while music heralded the shore’s recovery.

“It’s in our blood, our DNA,” the lyrics said. “It’s who we are, ’cause we’re stronger than the storm.”

New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone and other Democrats have long complained about the governor’s casting, given that he was running for re-election last year and the ads were paid for with federal Sandy relief funds.

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Pallone also questions the bidding process, which awarded a $4.7 million contract to the marketing and public relations firm MWW, even though another finalist undercut the winning bid by more than $2 million.

“The one that was the low bidder specifically said that they weren’t going to include the governor,” said Pallone. “From I can see, that was the major difference — the price and that he was going to be included in the ads.”

In August, Pallone asked the Inspector General of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to review the contract decision, after reporting by the Asbury Park Press revealed the contract did not go to the lowest bidder. Last week, Pallone says he heard back that an early review had found enough evidence to justify a full audit. A spokesperson with the Office of the Inspector General confirmed the existence of an audit, but would not comment on its specifics or expected duration.

In a statement, the Christie administration denied any wrongdoing and called Pallone’s announcement “conveniently timed,” as the governor is still dealing with fallout from unnecessary lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

“Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly,” wrote Christie Spokesman Colin Reed. “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.”

Previously, another Christie spokesman stated that MWW was chosen for its ability to get the work done and that its bid was more expensive because it involved more work and labor.

Not true, says Shannon Morris, the president and owner of Sigma Group, the firm that had a lower bid but didn’t get the job.

“I think if you sat and really reviewed the documents, the pricing and the proposal and the reach and the frequency of our plan compared to theirs were extremely comparable,” she said.

Sigma’s campaign would have featured small business owners to show that the shore would be ready for tourists.

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