EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ: MWW is defending the Stronger than the Storm campaign it created last year to promote New Jersey tourism in the wake of news that federal auditors are investigating the state's use of disaster recovery money for the effort.
CNN reported this morning that federal investigators are looking into whether funding for the $25 million campaign was misused. The spots, which featured Gov. Chris Christie (R) and his family, ran last summer as he was seeking re-election. News of the investigation came days after Christie fired two aides for their roles shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge in an alleged act of political retribution against Fort Lee, NJ, Mayor Mark Sokolich. The mayor had declined to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
MWW won the $25 million campaign in April to promote tourism in New Jersey the summer after Superstorm Sandy by ensuring vacationers that the state's shores would be open and to encourage local shopping.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) released a statement Monday morning that said the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general notified him last week that “they have found enough evidence to justify a full-scale audit of the state's usage of the federal funds.”
Pallone requested the investigation in August, according to a letter he wrote to HUD Inspector General David Montoya.
“This is a months-old story that has been rehashed for political purposes this week because of the governor's other issues,” said Josh Zeitz, SVP at MWW.
MWW defended itself in a statement against allegations that it won the account because it suggested featuring Christie in the ads.
“Given widely inaccurate reporting on Stronger than the Storm, we welcome the inspector general's report. It will show that MWW's proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign,” the firm said in the statement. “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.”
The firm also sought to refute accusations that MWW was chosen for the contract despite submitting a more expensive bid to the state than competitors.
“The [inspector general's] audit will also show that MWW's final proposal came in at $22.255 million, while the runner-up's proposal was $23.725 million. That means MWW came in at the lower overall bid by $1.47 million and offered the lowest hourly rates of all bidders,” MWW said in the statement. “[Stronger that the Storm] was one of the most successful campaigns in the history of New Jersey and had a material impact on the economic recovery of the Jersey Shore.”
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie's office, said in a statement the campaign was only one part of a federal action plan approved by the Obama Administration that was developed to get out the message that the Jersey Shore was open for business months after the storm. Federal agency reviews are “routine and standard procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly,” said 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,” Reed added.
Various media outlets speculated in August that Christie wanted to use the Stronger than the Storm campaign's reach to lay the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential bid. One official on the RFP selection committee, who was appointed by the governor, once received a $49,000 loan from Christie when he was a US attorney, the reports pointed out.
A spokesman in the office of the inspector general said it has no further comment other than it “received a request from Congress and are performing an audit to address those concerns.”