If Rudy Giuliani can be called the “Mayor of 9/11,” then Chris Christie should be the “Governor of Sandy.” A large portion of his overwhelming popularity in the state still stems directly from his immediate action following the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy.
In those dark and storm-ravaged days, Christie put partisanship aside, just weeks away from the election, and teamed up with President Obama to cut the red tape and provide immediate relief to storm-battered residents. He also chastised House Speaker John Boehner and members of his own party for their delay in voting for a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill, which could explain why he wasn’t invited to the big conservative shindig CPAC last weekend.
We all remember the words he used to describe Boehner and his fellow Republicans – “selfish and duplicity,” the “palace intrigue,” “the callous indifference to the people of our state,” “disgusting.” Need I go on?
So I wonder if behind closed doors in their hilltop home in Mendham, Christie is throwing the same harsh language his wife’s way.
It was reported last week that Mary Pat Christie’s Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund has not paid out a single penny to hurricane victims, despite raising over $32 million.
While the charity finally announced it was distributing the first $1 million to agencies in Monmouth and Ocean counties last week, it represents just 3 percent of the total amount the charity has raised. Compare the sap-like speed of Mary Pat’s charity with the Robin Hood Foundation’s quick turnaround of the $67 million raised by the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief. Robin Hood has already awarded more than $50 million in grants to dozens of nonprofit groups, and expects to have commitments in place for the remaining money by the end of the month.
While there is some value in Mary Pat being “judicious,” speed isn’t the only problematic aspect of Mary Pat’s charity. Another potential issue is the opportunity for special interests to cozy up and donate millions of dollars in funds in order to influence or buy access to her husband.
Predictably, Mary Pat dismissed this idea, but while her intentions may be 100 percent pure, a peek at the list of the charity fund’s top donor reveals big donations from the state’s largest corporations, like AT&T, Hess and Toys ‘R Us, who have each pledged over $1 million each.
The opportunity for big corporations to donate to the charity is a potential way for them to evade state laws that prohibit industries like utility companies and banks from donating to political campaigns. So it should come as no surprise that utilities are among the most generous contributors to Mary Pat’s charity. Not only that, the charity’s board is a veritable who’s who of influential lobbyists, philanthropists and corporate representatives, like political confidant Bill Palatucci and former Christie chief of staff Rich Bagger, who have connections of Christie’s re-election efforts.
In other states, these types of charities have been criticized by watchdog groups as a way for corporations and the powerful to skirt around campaign finance reform laws and buy influence. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children, headed by the wife of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, came under fire when it was revealed several big money contributors received large contracts or favorable legislation following their donations.
Among the donors to receive favorable benefits in return were Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($400 million contract), Northrop Grumman ($11.4 million contract) and AT&T (17 contracts totaling $32.2 million), just to name a few.
“The motives might be good,” Melanie Sloan, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, told the New York Times. “But the donations that come in to charities like this are almost always from folks who want something from a politician. It is a troubling phenomenon.”
Blue Cross/Blue Shield and AT&T are also big donors to Mary Pat’s charity. Of course, Christie has denounced the idea that corporations could use his wife’s charity to curry his favor. “Am I grateful to those people? You bet I am. If I see them, will I express my gratitude? You bet I will. And do I think they’re doing a great thing as a citizen and a human being? I do,” he said at a news conference back in December. “But they know, because they know me, that it will not one iota affect the way I execute my job as governor or any decisions I have to make as governor regarding the use of public money.”
I might take him at his word, if it weren’t for the no-bid contract AshBritt received for Hurricane Sandy debris removal. In that case, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour just happened to be a lobbyist for a group that represents AshBritt, and suggested to Christie that he take advantage of his services.
That’s the same Barbour that gave Christie $7.5 million in funds from the Republican’s Governor’s Association during his first election against Jon Corzine, which Christie credits for helping him win the race.
No one can say for certain that Barbour bought Christie’s influence, and we won’t know if AT&T or First Energy are trying to do the same. All I’m saying is for a man who used to be a U.S. Attorney, Christie is finding it difficult to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at RobTornoe.com, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.