Gov. Christie called questions about the performance history of a company drafting a plan to spend billions in Sandy relief money "ridiculous stuff that's just meant to inflame."
Christie, speaking at a firehouse on the Jersey Shore on Thursday alongside an Obama cabinet official, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, expressed confidence in the bidding process that led to his administration's selection of the Massachusetts-based company, CDM Smith.
An Inquirer article Wednesday highlighted that CDM was fired early last year for botching its rebuilding contract in Galveston, Texas, after Hurricane Ike.
Christie said that was just one contract in one place, and that after a competitive bidding process against five other companies that involved checks on references, the state Department of Community Affairs correctly selected the "experts" at CDM.
Christie spokeswoman Maria Comella also pointed out that the Galveston contract involved implementing a housing construction program while in New Jersey, CDM will only write a plan for giving out Community Development Block Grants.
The firm must provide a preliminary plan to the state by Feb. 18 and will then act as a consultant.
CDM did not respond to calls Thursday to confirm that distinction.
"Every person we bring in, I suspect, if you and the media work hard enough, are going to find someone who doesn't like them, and I'm sure you will put it right on the front page of the paper," Christie said.
The governor has also been under scrutiny for the political connections of another disaster cleanup company, AshBritt Inc. Later this month, Christie is scheduled to attend a fund-raising event for his gubernatorial campaign at an AshBritt lobbyist's home in Virginia.
In Galveston, the State of Texas replaced CDM after it repeatedly failed to meet requirements for rebuilding houses. City Council members and residents complained that the company failed to pay subcontractors, left behind $30 million in shoddy work, and was unresponsive to the community.
In New Jersey, CDM has donated more than $100,000 to political campaigns of both parties since the 1990s.
The funds that CDM now has sway over could reach $6 billion as part of the $50 billion Sandy aid package from Congress for the Northeast that Christie lobbied so publicly for. CDM is scheduled to be paid about $9.5 million over three years from that pot of relief money.
The "game plan" that CDM is devising for spending the relief money must be approved by the state and Donovan's office.
Donovan said he "can't comment specifically" on the Galveston contract or CDM, but said that the federal government would set up a project management office to "make every dollar transparent to citizens." He also said the federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board would monitor the program for fraud and waste.
"We're going to make sure that we're accountable in the way these dollars are spent," he said.
Christie, wearing a suit, and Donovan, in a Sea Bright T-shirt and windbreaker, toured the Sandy-ravaged town before the news conference. Christie described Donovan as a friend, and Donovan praised Christie for working with President Obama in the aftermath of Sandy.
Obama "didn't find a Republican governor or politician; he found a Jersey guy, an American who was going to stand up and fight to get this state back as quickly as possible, and who was going to do the right thing no matter what anyone says," Donovan said.
Although federal guidelines say Community Development Block Grants "generally" must be directed so at least half of the grants benefit low- and moderate-income people, neither Christie nor Donovan mentioned that requirement. Both said the first batch of money would largely go to homeowners and small businesses.
On Wednesday, Christie said some of the money would also be used on a marketing campaign to bring tourists back to the Shore.
Housing advocates are concerned that low-income renters displaced by Sandy are getting lost in the mix.
At an Assembly hearing on Sandy contracts Thursday, Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center, argued that CDM has little experience managing housing projects on the scale demanded to rebuild the Jersey Shore.
"It's getting $6 billion in funding, but it has no clear, successful record," Walsh said. "Transparency is certainly needed."
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