New Jersey lawmakers are criticizing Gov. Chris Christie for quickly hiring a politically-connected disaster recovery firm for as much as $100 million to clean up the Jersey shore after superstorm Sandy.
Democrats in the state Senate claim the no-bid contract turned out to be expensive for taxpayers, and opened the door for the firm to pick up additional contracts from dozens of hard hit New Jersey towns.
The Democrats' review of the contract is the first criticism of Christie's handling of the storm. The Republican governor, who is up for reelection this year, was widely praised for his response to the disaster which boosted his approval rating.
The Senate Democrats have requested all correspondence among Christie and his top administration staff as they decided in October 2012 to fast-track a contract for the firm AshBritt to clean up sand, roads and other debris in the wake of Sandy.
Christie hired the firm for up to $100 million of work two days after the storm devastated much of the Jersey shore and rampaged through the Northeast. The total earned by AshBritt could be more, since New Jersey towns hired the firm as well.
AshBritt had been recommended to Christie by Haley Barbour, the former Republican governor of Mississippi who oversaw the cleanup there from Hurricane Katrina, according to state Sen. Bob Gordon.
"Former governor Haley Barbour, a friend of (Christie's), contacted Governor Christie and told him he would recommend a company called AshBritt because of its work related to Katrina. We later learned that Mr. Barbour has a business relationship with AshBritt," said Gordon, who spoke on behalf of state Senate Democrats to ABC News.
Christie used a contract already in place between Connecticut and AshBritt as the model for the New Jersey contract.
AshBritt, which is headquartered in Florida, is a client of Barbour's lobbying firm, BGR Group. Christie attended a February fundraiser at the home of BGR's chairman, Ed Rogers, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
The company has donated large sums of money to political campaigns, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governor's Association, of which Christie is a former vice chairman, and national candidates.
AshBritt also paid politically-connected individuals in New Jersey to lobby for them, according to the New Jersey Star Ledger, including a Republican county chairman, a former top aide to ex-governor John Corzine, who was a Democrat, and a New Jersey lobbyist.
Jared Moskowitz, legal counsel for AshBritt, told ABC News that there was nothing amiss in the company's dealings with New Jersey. In times of crisis or disasters, states don't have time to put contracts out for bid, he said.
"What the Democrats suggest about the contract going out to bid hasn't happened in the last decade when dealing with major cleanups. After Katrina, there was an Army Corps contract, after Joplin a different contract was used. None of that went out to bid, they used contracts already in place, and then they start putting it out to bid," he said.
"Unfortunately it's an election year, the governor has an approval rating in 70s, and AshBritt is beign used as a tool to try and go after the governor," Moskowitz said. "It's a sad state of affairs that the Democrats would try to besmirch a company and cleanup that has gone extremely well."
Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said that the AshBritt contract was a temporary and fast solution to a crisis.
"The AshBritt contract in New Jersey was intended as and served as an intermediate step, providing a short-term option until a (Request for Proposals) could be completed, which was promptly done in the aftermath of the storm," Drewniak said in a statement.
He noted that more than 8 million cubic yards of debris and storm damage had been cleaned from the state since October, illustrating the enormity of the clean-up.
But critics say that the speed with which AshBritt was ushered in to help the state meant that 40-plus municipalities also quickly agreed to hire them, using the emergency contract Christie approved.
Christie's Sandy Contracts Questioned
"What we had was politically-connected people contacting Governor Christie, and getting very large contracts, worth tens of millions of dollars, through a non-competitive contract, a contract used by over 40 municipalities. They were able to take advantage of the state-recommended contract and paid a lot more for debris removal than towns that contracted on their own. We've learned this was not the best approach," Gordon said.
Drewniak pointed out that towns were not obligated to use AshBritt. They could have hired their own cleanup crews, he said.
But Gordon, who was among the Democrats who requested the records and asked the AshBritt CEO to testify to the state legislature recently, said that towns felt confident adopting a state-approved contract.
"What we're finding is the rates charged were twice as much as other organizations," Gordon said. "By not having a contract in place before the storm, the state had to scramble, and probably did not get the best kind of deal it could." Gordon said that the senate Democrats will not pursue any further actions on the AshBritt contract, but hope that in the future state contracts will be put up for bid to secure competitive pricing for taxpayers.