Democrats begin to question Christie's strength: Sandy

Here is my story today in The Inquirer about the next front in the Democrats' election year war against Christie over Sandy contracting:

TRENTON - A Republican power broker who helped get Gov. Christie elected. That power broker's ties to a company that landed a major contract after Sandy. And the prices the company is charging taxpayers to clean up the Jersey Shore.

Democrats will try to untangle these threads Friday afternoon when the chief executive of Florida-based AshBritt Inc., which Christie tapped for the initial post-Sandy recovery, testifies at a joint legislative hearing.

The hearing marks the start of Democratic efforts to call into question what has become Christie's strongest suit in this reelection year: his handling of Sandy. The day will be laden with political implications, in part because State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), Christie's expected challenger in November, will be one of the questioners on the Senate side of the bipartisan panel.

"It's not what some people may want to call it, a 'witch-hunt' of AshBritt; it's more of a fact-finding mission," said Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (D., Hudson), chairman of the committee that is jointly holding the hearing with state senators.

Democrats' questions will begin with whether Christie signed a no-bid sweetheart deal with a company that has business ties to a friend and patron. Christie has vigorously defended against accusations of impropriety, and the issue has not gained steam beyond the New Jersey media. To that end, Christie has attacked and belittled the Newark Star-Ledger, which broke the story.

Christie objects to the way Democrats and reporters have called this a "no-bid" contract. He has said New Jersey, two days after Sandy destroyed parts of the Shore, simply piggybacked off a four-year-old contract in Connecticut that had in fact been bid. That's a practice that the Federal Emergency Management Agency allows but discourages.

Christie has acknowledged that before he hired AshBritt, he consulted with Haley Barbour, who was Mississippi governor when the company handled cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. Barbour suggested that Christie hire the firm.

Barbour's lobbying firm, BGR Group, represents AshBritt. And Barbour's partner, BGR chairman Ed Rogers, hosted a $3,800-per-person fund-raiser for Christie's gubernatorial campaign in Virginia last week.

The connections go deeper. In 2009, Barbour was chairman of the Republican Governors Association and was instrumental in helping Christie get the money he needed to defeat well-heeled Gov. Jon S. Corzine that year. Christie says he considers Barbour a friend, and the support of this Southerner would be valuable if Christie decides to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

Buono, in a statement, said she hoped the hearing helped her to get "an understanding of how AshBritt was put in contact with the Christie administration and their thoughts on why Gov. Christie selected them for a no-bid contract."

AshBritt has said it expected to take in about $150 million from federal and local governments for its work in New Jersey under the emergency cleanup contract. Under terms of the deal, municipalities had the option of going with AshBritt, and more than 40 did.

That initial contract was later expanded, without going to bid, so the company could remove boats from waterways. Ultimately, the state entered into bidding processes that led AshBritt and four other companies to be hired to clear debris from both land and water.

Although local officials have been quick to praise AshBritt for its work in getting streets cleared of sand and debris, AshBritt consistently charges more than its competitors, according to public records. And in 2006, a congressional committee found that AshBritt and other contractors inflated costs during the Katrina cleanup.

Christie officials have said there simply was not time to bid out the initial debris-removal contract. Contracting rules are onerous and can take between two and three months.

Also at issue is the team of consultants that AshBritt hired to help it win contracts, including Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore and Maggie Moran, who was deputy chief of staff to Corzine. Although Democrats have expressed concerns that recovery dollars are ultimately going to lobbyists, this issue has less resonance because both Democratic and Republican lobbyists and mayors are involved.

At a Thursday news conference, Democrats focused on a related issue - that the state has failed to do proper environmental monitoring of AshBritt's debris disposal. They also noted that some environmental rules were waived for AshBritt when Christie hired the firm on an emergency basis.

Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club cited contaminated dump sites in Louisiana after Katrina and said the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection needed to check for asbestos and other contaminated materials in the piles of Sandy debris that are spread through several counties. He said some piles reached 80 feet high and spread across the length of two football fields.

That's why Democrats are asking the DEP to create an environmental monitor to make sure toxic Sandy waste does not end up in the drinking supply.

"We're constantly sending inspectors, constantly monitoring," DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said of the 137 debris piles still awaiting permanent disposal. "We had people on the ground working with municipalities making sure they knew all the regulations."

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the fact that Democrats appeared at a news conference with Tittel before the AshBritt hearing even began indicated partisanship. 

"Oh, sure, their motivations are pure, all right," he said.

In the face of questions over transparency, Christie signed an executive order last month mandating that the independent state Comptroller's Office review all Sandy-related contracts. On Thursday afternoon, the comptroller unveiled a new website,, that compiles contracts and details spending, as Christie had promised.

 The legislative hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Statehouse. It is the first of several hearings planned.