Los Angeles Times

Storm clouds for Christie

N.J. governor dogged by claims of favoritism and incompeten­ce in delivering Superstorm Sandy recovery funds.

- BY JOSEPH TANFANI

POMONA, N.J. — His state wrecked and reeling from Superstorm Sandy, Chris Christie made himself the face of New Jersey’s comeback effort with a takecharge tour de force that became a cornerston­e of an expected run for president.

But the made-for-cam- paign-ads story of resurrecti­on is now riddled with failures: poor performanc­e by contractor­s, accusation­s of insider deals and increasing frustratio­n from homeowners still waiting for recovery funds. In the aftermath of the George Washington Bridge scandal, Gov. Christie and top members of his administra­tion also face questions about whether he and his aides used disaster relief funds to reward friends and punish enemies.

At a recent public hearing on Sandy recovery, Jane Peltonen ripped into state officials: Sixteen months after the storm, she said, her Brigantine home is still in shambles and financial assistance from the state has not arrived. Once encouraged by Christie’s pledges of quick help, she now has nothing but angry words for him.

“A lot of us are still waiting,” she said during the often-raucous hearing. “Right now it is a black eye on our state. Where’s the governor? I think maybe he’s in Chicago, or maybe Texas. Do you really think he’s going to make sure we get help?”

In fact, Christie was in Chicago that day, wooing big donors in his role as chairman of the Republican Gov-

ernors Assn.

At town hall meetings crowded with Sandy victims, Christie has acknowledg­ed the recovery delays, but said much of the blame lay elsewhere — in poor policies, insufficie­nt funding and “immeasurab­le” red tape devised by federal agencies. He defended his administra­tion’s overall handling of the recovery.

“I never promised you, nor would I, that this was going to be mistake-free,” Christie said in Toms River recently.

The storm made landfall near Atlantic City on Oct. 29, 2012, leaving some waterfront towns underwater, scattering houses and businesses on the coastline and causing, by the state’s count, $36.9 billion in damage. More than 325,000 homes were ravaged.

Questions about the recovery effort began almost as soon as New Jersey got its first $1.8-billion federal grant — money that state officials had a good deal of discretion on how to spend.

Early on, it spent $25 million on a promotion campaign aimed at salvaging last summer’s tourism season on the Jersey shore; the “Stronger Than the Storm” television ads featuring Christie and his family ran months before he stood for reelection. The inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Developmen­t is examining whether the spending was proper.

An additional $139 million was poured into highrises for senior citizens and other affordable-housing projects in the nine most damaged counties. But some of the projects were in towns that escaped the storm relatively unscathed — like Belleville, where de- velopers received $10 million to put up a senior housing project.

Christie’s administra­tion has defended the strategy, saying it tried to aid victims quickly by pushing money into shovel-ready projects near the damaged areas.

All told, the state says it has committed $983 million of the money — but has so far actually disbursed much less, about $227 million.

Federal prosecutor­s are looking into assertions by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that politics played a role in where the money was spent. She says that top officials in the Christie administra­tion told her that her town would have more luck getting recovery funds if she would support a redevelopm­ent project tied to Christie’s allies. The officials she named, including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, have denied Zimmer’s claim.

For many residents, the biggest source of pain has been the Homeowner Reconstruc­tion, Rehabilita­tion, Elevation and Mitigation program. Set up with $600 million of the $1.8-billion federal grant, it was to give individual homeowners up to $150,000 each to cover the gap between insurance payments and the cost of rebuilding their houses. New Jersey says it has sent letters to more than 5,000 homeowners promising funds, but has spent only $30 million so far.

Last May, at a cost of $68 million for three years, the state hired Hammerman & Gainer Inc. of Louisiana, a firm that specialize­s in disaster recovery services, to handle applicatio­ns from homeowners. One of the subcontrac­tors on the proposal was the New Jersey law firm of an inf luential Christie supporter, former Republican county Chairman Glenn Paulsen. The same day the contract took effect, the law firm contribute­d $25,000 to the Republican Governors Assn., the political action committee now chaired by Christie.

Criticism f lew almost as soon as the program began taking applicatio­ns. Homeowners complained of lost paperwork and of having to navigate a bewilderin­g maze of requiremen­ts with little help from the workers in the recovery centers, who were hired through temp agencies.

“You’d see these kids who looked like they worked in McDonald’s the week before,” said Tom Largey, who has been battling to get aid to help rebuild his elderly parents’ home in Sea Bright.

Last December, Hammerman & Gainer and the state quietly parted ways after the state had paid it more than $35.7 million. The company says it is owed an additional $21.2 million; if the state agrees, it will have paid the company nearly the entire three-year contract amount for just eight months’ work.

In an arbitratio­n filing, the firm said the state kept giving it extra work and promising to pay more later. One state official involved in the recovery effort said the state, in its rush to get the contractor­s working, wrote sloppy contracts without strong performanc­e standards.

The state Department of Community Affairs is running the program with help from the firm ICF Internatio­nal of Virginia. ICF received a no-bid contract to complete the grant program, which runs through 2015, for $36.5 million.

Both Hammerman & Gainer and ICF were contractor­s in a similar $10-billion program that became notorious for mistakes and long delays in handing out funds in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. New Jersey officials said they had heard of the Louisiana woes before signing the contracts, but didn’t consider them disqualify­ing. They said they selected Hammerman & Gainer because its proposal came in at $127 million less than the only other bid.

An ICF spokesman said the company “actually overdelive­red” after Katrina and that audits found no wrongdoing. Hammerman & Gainer did not respond to requests for comment.

In New Jersey, the Fair Share Housing Center, an affordable housing advocacy group, released a study showing that 80% of homeowners rejected by Hammerman & Gainer were found eligible for aid after filing appeals. Kevin Walsh, the center’s associate director, said many applicants never learned why their first requests were denied. “It’s just a complete unknown to most people who have dealt with the process,” he said. “When you don’t have any rules you have to make it up as you go along.”

At a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) blamed Christie’s administra­tion for problems like botched paperwork, long delays and lack of transparen­cy. Referring to Christie’s criticism of federal rules, he said it “was time to stop finger-pointing and get the job done.”

“People simply feel the major state programs are not being run fairly or competentl­y,” said Menendez, chairman of the Subcommitt­ee on Housing, Transporta­tion and Community Developmen­t. At the hearing, Housing and Urban De- velopment Secretary Shaun Donovan said his agency was investigat­ing whether the program, which featured a botched Spanish-language website, unfairly denied access to minorities, and was pressing the state to make improvemen­ts.

In defending their work, Christie and other top officials in his administra­tion say New Jersey’s record is better than New York’s when it comes to delivering aid to homeowners: One study by a housing group found that under a similar program in New York City, only 110 of nearly 20,000 applicants had received an award.

For the victims, that is little solace. Jeanine Gross of Port Monmouth, a medical office manager, waited in line at her town’s hearing to see state officials, clutching a sheaf of paperwork about her wrecked home.

“They give you no informatio­n at all. All they tell you is you’re still on the waiting list,” she said.

Without a grant, she added, she has come to believe she’s “going to have to move away from here.”

 ?? Mel Evans Associated Press ?? GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE takes questions at a town hall meeting last week in Toms River, N.J. “I never promised you, nor would I, that this was going to be mistake-free,” he said of delivering aid after Superstorm Sandy.
Mel Evans Associated Press GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE takes questions at a town hall meeting last week in Toms River, N.J. “I never promised you, nor would I, that this was going to be mistake-free,” he said of delivering aid after Superstorm Sandy.

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