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MWW Campaign Plays Starring Role in New Christie Controversy

052013_StrongerThanTheStormScreenGrab

A new week brings a new scandal for New Jersey governor Chris Christie just as his epic and (arguably) successful apology marathon fades from the headlines.

At the center of said controversy lies a campaign created by Jersey agency MWW, which will now play a role in an ongoing audit by the federal government. Why? Because the money that paid for the “Stronger than the Storm” campaign came from the feds, and its purpose was to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy by encouraging tourists to visit the damaged shore.

Back in August, Democratic Jersey rep Frank Pallone argued that the money actually served, in part, to promote Christie himself in an election year. Surprise surprise: the governor’s moment of weakness turned out to be the perfect time for HUD to begin investigating whether the campaign amounted to an improper use of taxpayer funds.

The New Jersey Star-Ledger—with which Christie and his aides have an “F U” relationship—once again gives us the best reporting on the story, summarizing the core angle with this line:

“[MWW] submitted a bid of $4.7 million. Another bid that was not selected would have cost $2.5 million, but the governor wouldn’t have appeared in the ads.”

So Christie (allegedly) went with the more expensive ads because they were more beneficial for his career.

MWW and Christie both disagree with the accusations for very different reasons: MWW says the numbers have been reported incorrectly while the Christie administration always framed the entire campaign as a public service to the state he governs. Here’s the spot everyone’s talking about:

For the record, MWW’s VP for public affairs William P. Murray told the Star-Ledger that the decision to include the Christie family in the ad was made after the contract was signed and that the total price of the agency’s final campaign proposal, TV spot included, was actually lower than that of its competitors. Murray also said that MWW “welcomes” the coming audit in the wake of “widely inaccurate” reporting.

This isn’t your average “blue vs. red” political scoop, despite the fact that various reports call MWW “politically connected”: CEO and founder Michael Kempner has worked with the Democratic National Committee in the past, and earlier this week President Obama appointed him to the Broadcasting Board of Governors. While it’s true that Christie earned some bad press in conservative circles for embracing Obama both literally and figuratively after the storm, not even the most partisan Republican would mistake him for a Democrat.

Based on what we know so far, the ethics concerns in this case are all Christie’s: MWW simply pitched and won what it knew would be a high-paying account, and we have to think that home state pride had a good bit to do with it, too.

In the latest twist, National Journal revealed that the woman supposedly responsible for choosing MWW’s pitch was a former federal prosecutor and Christie aide who resigned from the U.S. Attorneys Office in 2009 due to accusations that she had a too-close relationship with the governor; when he was still an attorney himself, he gave her a large loan without disclosing it to tax authorities.

In terms of party support, the audit could theoretically be more damaging to Christie’s ambitions than the bridge story. Some of his potential 2016 opponents began using the Sandy campaign against him some time ago: Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, for example, called it “a conflict of interest” in 2012 and said that taxpayers should be “offended to see our money spent on political ads.”

Now remember how Christie himself got angry at House Republicans for failing to pass the Sandy relief bill? Remember how self-proclaimed Tea Partiers warned that the money would be spent on “Gucci bags and massage parlors“? We predict that primary voters will not much care for this story.

Don’t cue “Don’t Stop Believin’” just yet, though—if we know Christie, he’ll continue pushing back.

Let’s just say we will be following this one very closely, because we’re confident that it will make a great case study some day no matter how it all turns out.

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