On Monday, CNN reported that federal officials are investigating whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads that functioned as campaign spots when he was running for reelection. The allegations come as Christie is already immersed in scandal after internal emails suggested that a close aide to the governor—who has now been fired—orchestrated a traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge for the sake of political revenge. With the bridge episode now being investigated by the US attorney for New Jersey, this latest news means Christie, a leading potential GOP presidential contender in 2016, is facing two federal probes.
This second investigation focuses on a $25 million radio, television, and web campaign mounted by Christie's administration to promote the Jersey Shore's recovery in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a project dubbed "Stronger Than the Storm." Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), who last summer called for the investigation, claims that Christie awarded this advertising campaign to a firm whose bid was $2.2 million higher than the next lowest bidder—and that Christie favored this company because it would feature him and his family in the ads. The Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general notified Pallone late last week that there were sufficient grounds to launch a full investigation.
In May, Democrats criticized Christie for the ads, accusing the governor of using the taxpayer-funded advertisements to boost his political image as he ran for reelection. (Christie was largely praised for how he handled hurricane relief.) Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also called the ads "offensive," noting that "in New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office. You think there might be a conflict of interest there?" A Christie spokesman told the Asbury Park Press in August that the the firm that was awarded the contract, MWW, was the best option because it had statewide connections and could get the campaign done quickly.
Word of a new investigation couldn't come at a worse time for Christie. The governor apologized for his administration's role in the Fort Lee traffic snarl last week, but plenty of questions remain, including those related to text messages that may incriminate other Christie aides.
The governor's spokesman, Colin Reed, released a statement on Monday responding to the controversy: "The Stronger Than The Storm [ad] campaign was just one part of the first action plan approved by the Obama Administration and developed with the goal of effectively communicating that the Jersey Shore was open for business during the first summer after Sandy. 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."
Check out two more "Stronger than the Storm" ads featuring Christie and his family:
On Thursday, New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie held a press conference to address allegations that his appointees orchestrated a dangerous traffic jam for political revenge. Christie maintained that he was deceived by a member of his "circle of trust" and noted that he had fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who was implicated in the scandal. He insisted that he had not known that Kelly ordered the traffic problems until the news broke on Wednesday. But many commentators have wondered if this whole episode—whether Christie was in the know or not—has bolstered the view that Christie is a bully.
Christie took issue with this characterization at the press conference. He asserted, "I am who I am. But I am not a bully…The tone that we've set here [is] that I'm willing to compromise." But those who have been the targets of Christie's wrath disagree. And here are 8 videos of Christie yelling, belittling people, and name-calling—and most of the clips are promoted by Christie himself on his popular YouTube page:
1. Christie to a teacher: "If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well then I have no interest in answering your question."
2. Christie to a former Navy SEAL: "Your rear end's going to get thrown in jail, idiot."
3. Christie to a reporter: "You know Tom, you must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America…you should really see me when I'm pissed."
4. Christie to a constituent: "Hey Gail, you know what, first off it's none of your business."
5. Christie to a former White House doctor: "This is just another hack who wants five minutes on TV…she should shut up."
6. Christie to an Occupy Wall Street protester: "Something may be going down tonight, but it ain't going to be jobs, sweetheart."
7. Christie to a reporter: "Are you stupid?…I'm sorry for the idiot over there."
8. Christie to a person on the street: "You're a real big shot. You're a real big shot. Just keep walking away. Keep walking."
UPDATE: On Thursday, Christie said, "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."
"Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the Christie campaign, said that any notion that Mr. Sokolich faced retribution for not endorsing the governor was 'crazy.'" -The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2013
"A spokesman for Christie, Michael Drewniak, said the governor had nothing to do with the lane closures: 'The governor of the state of New Jersey does not involve himself in traffic studies,' Drewniak said." -The Star-Ledger (November 13, 2013)
"I was the guy out there, in overalls and a hat. I actually was the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question." -Christie to WYNC(December 2, 2013)
"Mr. Christie also said he believed Mr. Baroni's [his top executive appointee at the Port Authority] explanation that the purpose of the closures was a traffic study. 'I don’t think that Senator Baroni would not tell the truth,' Mr. Christie said." -The Wall Street Journal (December 13, 2013)
"Christie said Friday the political drama surrounding the issue was 'created and manufactured,' further characterizing it as 'a whole lot of hullabaloo.'" -CNN (December 13, 2013)
"I don't have any recollection of ever having met the mayor of Fort Lee in my four years...He was not somebody that was on my radar screen in any way–politically, professionally, or in any other way" -CNN (December 13, 2013)
"When asked about that claims that the closures were ordered for political retribution, Christie said 'absolutely, unequivocally not.'" Politico (December 13, 2013)
"I know you guys are obsessed with this, I'm not. I'm really not. It's just not that big a deal." -Christie to Talking Points Memo (December 19, 2013)
And, finally, Wednesday:
"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions." -Statement, January 8, 2013
The President listens during a April National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room.
On Thursday, a number of civil liberties groups that have harshly criticized the NSA surveillance practices disclosed by Edward Snowden, are meeting with President Obama's top lawyer, Kathy Ruemmler. This White House session is one of several this week with lawmakers, tech groups, and members of the intelligence community that will help the President soon decide whether to keep the controversial surveillance programs intact.
Among groups that are reportedly attending the meeting are the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the Federation of American Scientists. According to Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the White House, the purpose of the meeting with Ruemmler "is to have a broad discussion regarding privacy and civil liberties protections and transparency initiatives." According to a source with knowledge of the meeting, the meeting is likely the "next phase" of the Obama Administration's attempt to decide "exactly how much of the Surveillance Review Group’s fairly radical recommendations they’re going to get behind."
In December, this independent panel took a hard look at NSA snooping and issued46 recommendations for reform, such as having phone carriers store domestic telephone records, rather than the NSA. Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of EPIC, tells Mother Jones that, "We support many of the recommendations contained in the report of the Review Group, particularly the proposal to end the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records....But we think the President needs to do more." He adds, "Privacy protection is not simply about NSA reform. We also need strong consumer safeguards."
On Wednesday, President Obama is meeting with "leaders of the Intelligence community" and members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency that advises the President, according to Hayden. He will also meet with members of the House and Senate on Thursday to discuss surveillance issues. The Associated Press reports that he is expected to issue a final decision on NSA surveillance programs as early as next week.
The Senate unexpectedly moved forward on extending much-needed unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million Americans who lost benefits shortly after Christmas. On Tuesday morning the extension cleared an early filibuster by a 60-37 vote, with six Republicans joining the Democrats in voting for advancement. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act, introduced by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), extends benefits for the long-term unemployed for only three months—but 37 Republicans still voted to block debate on the bill. Some of those Republicans who blocked the bill represent states with the highest unemployment rates in the country.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the bill's Republican cosponsor and one of the few GOPers to vote to move the bill towards final passage in the Senate, comes from a state with the worst unemployment rate in the United States—at 9 percent. It's no surprise that he might vote to extend benefits to those Americans who have been out of the job for six months or more. But that doesn't explain the no-votes from Republican Sen. Mark Kirk from Illinois, which has the fourth-worst unemployment rate—8.7 percent—and the two Republicans senators from Mississippi, which has an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent. Republicans have cited the high cost of the bill as the reason they don't want to extend emergency benefits, although they've done so repeatedly in the past.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) joined Heller as the only Republicans to vote for cloture.
So what will happen now? The bill still has a long way to go before it passes the Senate. Some of the Republicans who voted for cloture on Tuesday might still join another filibuster against the final vote. Portman, for example, wants to proceed to debate but is demanding that the cost be offset if Democrats hope to win his vote next time. And even if the extension clears the Senate, it will likely flounder in the Republican-controlled House. In the meantime, as America continues to face the worst long-term unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, families who have been using the recession-era emergency benefits to scrape by will now fall even deeper into the poverty well. Last year, unemployment benefits helped lift 1.7 million people (including 446,000 children) out of poverty, according to the National Employment Law Project. As one New Yorker who has lost her benefits told Mother Jones, "I'm thoroughly petrified."