NEW YORK — Federal investigators have ordered an investigation into whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration improperly spent millions of dollars of relief funds meant to encourage tourists to visit the state after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
The inquiry comes as Christie struggles with the most difficult crisis of his political career, after it was revealed that people in his administration schemed to close lanes onto the George Washington Bridge as political punishment for the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee. On Monday, New Jersey Democrats announced a new committee to investigate the closings.
This is not the first time Christie has come under criticism for the Hurricane Sandy funds: Many of the television advertisements used in the campaign, called “Stronger Than the Storm,” prominently featured the governor and his family, which drew complaints from Democrats, who said the ads were more focused on promoting Christie than the Jersey Shore.
The commercials were paid with money from a federal disaster relief package New Jersey received that included $25 million for a media campaign. An audit by the Department of Housing and Urban Development will look into how the contract was awarded.
An Asbury Park Press investigation last year found the public relations firm that won the contract, MWW Group, of East Rutherford, charged $2 million more than a competitor that submitted a comparable proposal. A key difference in the bids, the newspaper reported, was that the MWW Group proposal prominently featured the governor in the ads.
After the reports, Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat and longtime critic of Christie, wrote to HUD, asking the agency to look into the matter. On Monday, his office said it had received word from the agency that it would open an investigation.
Christie’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Also Monday, new indications emerged that Christie played hardball to win support from Democratic officials in his bid for reelection in November.
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request show the governor’s administration aggressively courted the mayor of Jersey City, then abruptly cut ties after he said he would not endorse the governor.
According to the documents, the courtship between Christie and Mayor Steven Fulop began with a call from the governor May 14. The next morning, Christie’s campaign manager for his reelection, Bill Stepien, texted Fulop to say the Christie administration would do as much as Fulop wanted to get help from the state.
Working with Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, Fulop then set up a day’s worth of meetings on July 23. Kelly was fired last week after the release of documents showing she gave the signal to shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge.
Fulop had appointments scheduled with commissioners or heads of six administration agencies, including transportation and economic development, the state treasurer, and the commissioner of community affairs.
After Fulop told Christie aides on July 18 that he would not endorse the governor, the commissioners began calling to cancel. Almost all cancellations came within an hour. That the commissioners called the mayor’s office to cancel shows an unusually close level of involvement for high-ranking government officials.
When Fulop then reached out to Bill Baroni, then a Port Authority official, in early August to ask to reschedule and to ask if the timing was related to “political conversations” they had been having, he got no response. Baroni resigned from the Port Authority in December.
The US attorney in New Jersey is investigating Christie’s administration for its role in the lane closings on the bridge in September. New Jersey lawmakers have also vowed to continue with their own review and are expected to issue more subpoenas to top officials.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who is leading the legislative investigation, said he expected to seek testimony from Kelly and Stepien, who was also Christie’s former choice for Republican Party chairman.
Wisniewski said Monday he would lead “a newly formed special investigatory committee that will have subpoena power, utilize a special counsel, and focus solely on investigating questions surrounding the decision to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.”