Friday, August 22, 2014
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Buono gets into it with Christie's Sandy contractor

TRENTON - The company that led the cleanup of the Jersey Shore after Sandy defended itself against Democratic insinuations about overcharging and shady lobbying practices during a testy, four-hour legislative hearing Friday.

Buono gets into it with Christie's Sandy contractor

Here's my story in Saturday's paper about the spat between Barbara Buono, Christie's challenger in November, and the contractor hired to clean up the Jersey Shore after Sandy:

TRENTON - The company that led the cleanup of the Jersey Shore after Sandy defended itself against Democratic insinuations about overcharging and shady lobbying practices during a testy, four-hour legislative hearing Friday.

Political sniping dominated and the gubernatorial campaign lingered in the air as State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), Gov. Christie's likely challenger in November, sparred with Republicans and Randal Perkins, chief executive of the Florida-based company AshBritt, about how the firm scored the job in New Jersey and determined its pricing levels after the Oct. 29 storm.

"I know it has been stated here that this is not a political event, but in all due respect, you're running for governor," Perkins said to Buono during one exchange late in the hearing.

As Buono defended herself, saying she was also a legislator advocating for her constituents, he smirked. At the close of the hearing, he apologized for the comment.

Democrats focused on how, instead of bidding out the deal, which Christie and AshBritt officials said would have taken too long, Christie simply adopted a long-standing recovery contract that AshBritt had with Connecticut. Since the Federal Emergency Management Agency discourages one state from "piggybacking" off another, Buono asked, doesn't New Jersey risk losing out on federal reimbursements?

Perkins did not answer immediately, and Buono interrupted him. He shot back: "No, you're not listening. . . . With all due respect, I'm not trying to be combative."

Perkins ultimately said that he was aware of the FEMA provision but that New Jersey would not lose out on reimbursements because a top FEMA official had signed off on the deal.

But he did not have a document to prove that, Perkins said, and late in the day, FEMA released a statement saying the agency had not approved any contract between AshBritt and the state.

Perkins then said the FEMA spokesperson was wrong: "If this is some smoking gun, it's shooting water right now."

Republicans, meanwhile, were supportive of the work that AshBritt has done in 51 New Jersey towns. And they repeatedly lambasted Democrats as creating a political show. "Is this a campaign rally or a hearing of the General Assembly and Senate?" State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) asked Buono at one point. "My goodness, I think you should have some decorum."

Kyrillos repeatedly brought up the fact that the Democratic-controlled Legislature has not yet voted on more than a dozen Sandy-related bills but was Monday-morning-quarterbacking the governor.

"This hearing, even under New Jersey political standards, is out of bounds," added Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union). "The public is satisfied with the actions of this governor."

Democrats weren't satisfied. They asked Perkins and another AshBritt official who testified why the company charged higher prices in New Jersey than in Delaware.

Perkins acknowledged that its pricing in Delaware was far cheaper but said New Jersey contractors "are some of the best that we've ever worked with" and command a higher rate.

Another issue with AshBritt concerns lobbyists. News reports have linked AshBritt with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who now runs AshBritt's lobbying firm. Barbour is friends with Christie and has said he recommended AshBritt to Christie.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) tried to pin Perkins down on when AshBritt lobbyists began talking to New Jersey officials about Sandy cleanup.

"It just doesn't make sense to me, you arrived here within 24 hours after a storm - we didn't even have communications in some places - and you had a state contract," Weinberg said.

Buono argued that Barbour "tipped the scales" to give AshBritt the advantage.

Perkins did not describe what role Barbour had, if any, in landing the contract. Instead, he reminded legislators of the successful recovery that his company had managed.

"Can you imagine if we were sitting here and debris was piled up and kids were trying to get to school?" Perkins asked. "The right decision was made. It was reasonable; it was responsible."

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