Something Is Rotten In Jersey
Thanks to Chris Christie, little unassuming New Jersey is getting an awful lot of attention lately. Maybe we should have been paying more attention, all along . . .
By now, many folks following New Jersey news have heard about the AshBritt scandal. Hurricane Sandy turned lots of New Jersey into a trash heap. The stuff had to be cleared away before anything else could be done. Gov. Christie deemed it an emergency and hired a Florida company called AshBritt on a pal’s recommendation. The pal was Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina handler and world class mega-lobbyist. I guess there weren’t any trash haulers in the tri-state area . . .
Other haulers underbid AshBritt but never received responses from the state. AshBritt got the contract and then just happened to take out a $50,000 subscription to the Republican Governors’ Association, a major backer of both of Gov. Christie’s campaigns.
Here’s how this workaround goes:
” . . . his [Christie’s] campaign fund can only collect $3,800 from individuals and companies, and firms holding large contracts with the state must follow the stricter contribution limits of the “pay-to-play” laws.
By contrast, the Republican Governors Association collected nearly $1 million from New Jersey donors in 2009, including those who had already hit the ceiling for giving directly to Christie’s campaign that year.
Everything is “legal” because the RGA decides which candidates to support, ultimately. Donors have no guarantee that their donations will be rewarded but they will be visible:
. . . the donations and contracts raise questions about the relationship between the officials who award them and the vendors who benefit, one expert on ethics said Tuesday, noting that New Jersey is preparing to handle billions in federal aid for the rebuilding effort.
. . .
In addition to AshBritt, the Louis Berger Group of Morristown and Ceres Environmental of Minnesota are listed on the Department of Treasury’s “Hurricane Cooperative Contracts” website for Sandy-related contracts. Berger donated $25,900 to the Republican governors’ group and Ceres gave $11,350 in 2012, according to IRS disclosures. Two other companies working in New Jersey under Sandy-related contracts, Washington, D.C.-based Witt Group and CDM of Massachusetts, are also contributors to the GOP organization. Witt Group gave $75,450, and CDM gave $450 in 2012, according to IRS reports.
On top of all of that, Christie now chairs the RGA unless, of course, Ken Cuccinelli has his way.
Despite some irregularities in the bid process, AshBritt won the contract, hauled some crews up to Jersey and promptly commenced overbilling the taxpayers. The problem was caught by some auditors from the Louis Berger Group hired to oversee Hurricane Sandy payouts [yes that Louis Berger Group]. I guess the governor figured he’d get the experts at over-billing in to guard the henhouse. All told, the auditors figure AshBritt has to give back somewhere in the neighborhood of $300K. Buuuut . . . .
In the meantime, the auditors’ office in Tom’s River was broken into and their computers and some hard drives were stolen.
Sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning on October 9th, computers and hard drives were stolen from the office of the Louis Berger Group. The computers and laptops potentially contained documents pertaining to FEMA claims, FEMA billing records, auditor reports and sensitive personal information collected during the cleanup effort after Superstorm Sandy. Mastronardy did not disclose the contents or data which resided on the stolen equipment.
Imagine that? there goes the evidence. Ooops.
And for whatever reason, state authorities are not exactly in “hot pursuit:”
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office maintains a high tech crime unit which is frequently called upon by local law enforcement for assistance in technology related crimes. According to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s office, the high tech crime unity employs, “specially trained detectives to conduct and assist with investigating technology related crimes. Such crimes include Internet fraud, credit card theft, identity theft, child luring, child pornography, network intrusions, email and instant messaging threats.”
According to Al DellaFave, a spokesperson for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, that unit has not yet been requested to investigate the incident, nearly two weeks later.
Better yet, this weekend we learn that, back in December, when the BrideGate sh*t was hitting the fan, the State of New Jersey quietly—one is tempted to say surreptitiously—fired their prime contractor for the whole statewide cleanup, Hammerman and Gainer, for who knows why . . . ?
It’s easy enough to guess, given the distress signals that many Jersey homeowners are sending up a year after the hurricane. Things like:
This Louisiana firm, called Hammerman and Gainer (HGI), got lambasted by Sandy victims at several legislative hearings. It was accused of losing applications, of giving people the runaround when they called with basic questions or tried to find out where they stood on the waiting list.
It’s been faulted for unreturned phone calls and delays in getting people back into their homes—not just in New Jersey but in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
But, it’s very curious to me that, with all of those irate taxpayers breathing down their necks, the administration wouldn’t jump at the chance to say “we heard you, this company was doing a lousy job so we fired them.” The only place the news of the contract termination surfaced was on a State Treasury Department website.
So. Sorry Hurricane Sandy victims, if you thought things were going slowly before, wait until your state officials have to shop this massive three year $68 million contract around a second time.
I guess the Christie administration decided to take a “let’s not tell the kids” approach on this because administration officials like Richard Constable, who is overseeing the state’s rebuilding program, evidently felt that it wasn’t newsworthy enough to mention the fact that the statewide rebuild project was without a contractor when he testified before the State Assembly back in December.
Nor did he feel that it was relevant last week when he reported progress awarding grants and notifying grant applicants of their status.
Ditto Marc Ferzan, New Jersey’s “Sandy czar” who refused to attend a series of legislative hearings to respond to complaints from Hurricane Sandy victims.
Once word leaked out, however, on January 23, 2014, Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, offered this baffling statement:
We’ve recently concluded our relationship with HGI as New Jersey transitions to the next phase of disaster recovery.
What phase of disaster recovery might that be, Ms Ryan? The phase where the people who have been waiting for a year to get back in their homes still don’t know where their aid applications have gone?
Ryan did not respond to follow-up questions about why the contract was ended or who was now running the housing programs.
Neither is HGI saying. Cherie Pinac, HGI’s COO, said only that it was a “mutual agreement to terminate.”
But the State Treasury Department website posts a related document
. . . dated Dec. 16 . . . that says a settlement agreement was executed by the state of New Jersey, the Department of Law and Public Safety, the Office of the Attorney General and HGI on Dec. 6. That document states HGI will receive $9 million for an “unpaid balance” and another $1.5 million for “interim compensation” during the “transition period.”
In the corporate world that I inhabited, up until 2003, it would have been a rare and startling occurrence, indeed, for two parties at this level to agree to terminate a 3-year $68 million contract less than a year into it.
There’s this, though:
According to the Wall Street Journal, a law firm representing HGI donated $25,000 to the Republican Governors Association the month after the firm submitted its original proposal. The RGA, which Gov. Chris Christie chairs, was an important source of cash for his re-election campaign. The association pumped $1.7 million into Christie’s campaign.
At any rate, now that the cat’s out of the bag it looks like Boss Christie has some ‘splaining to do. New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, on Friday, called on Christie’s administration to give the state Senate a clue.
Advocates for Sandy victims questioned why the firing wasn’t publicized. “Every taxpayer deserves to know what is going on. The whole country is paying for our rebuilding,” said Staci Berger, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, an organization that has criticized the Christie administration’s handling of the recovery.
Honest to gawd, you couldn’t make this stuff up . .