- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The winning bidder for New Jersey’s Superstorm Sandy marketing contract now causing political grief for Gov. Chris Christie added jobs in its proposal that didn’t appear on the company’s government price list — a move that could have hindered officials trying to evaluate whether the bid was the best deal for taxpayers.

That contract is now under federal investigation, said a congressman from New Jersey who asked for the probe, questioning whether the bidder crossed the line by having Mr. Christie appear in tourism ads while running for re-election last fall.

The fine print of the contract issued by the state was clear on one point: Bidders should include rates the same or better than those in their federal pricing schedules. The requirement was designed to make sure state officials got deals as good or better than rates offered to federal agencies.

Mr. Christie issued another apology for his administration’s woes at a closely watched State of the State address Tuesday to lawmakers in Trenton. Before outlining his agenda for the coming year, he acknowledged that revelations of the past week had “tested this administration.”

“I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch — both good and bad,” said Mr. Christie, seen as a top contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. “Without a doubt, we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.”

The ad controversy emerged on the heels of the furor over revelations that Christie aides engineered a massive traffic jam last fall near the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor in Fort Lee who failed to endorse the governor.

In the “Stronger than the Storm” campaign — administered by the state and funded by the federal government — winning bidder MWW listed several jobs that appear on its federal pricing list. But it also listed numerous other jobs in its proposal that don’t appear on the company’s U.S. General Services Administration price schedule, documents show.

Such positions included a public relations intern for $41.44 per hour and a director of client services at $155 per hour, records show.

“It strains the limits of acceptability,” said Charles Tiefer, a former deputy general counsel for the House who served on the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting.

“The point of the federal price list is to confine what’s acceptable, and under this theory, they could list ‘guru’ as a job title and charge 1,000 bucks an hour,” said Mr. Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

He said the company wasn’t engaging in any fraudulent behavior by adding the jobs because they disclosed the positions to the government. But, he said, the situation leaves unanswered how state officials could know they were getting a good deal when jobs not listed on the company’s federal price list were added to its winning state contract proposal.

Losing bidder Shannon Morris, president of the Sigma Group, said the job titles included in her company’s offer also appeared on the GSA price list of its partner on the proposal, Weber Shandwick.

“We hit every element of the proposal and ultimately we lost, and the question remains, ‘Why?’” Ms. Morris said in an interview.

She said she is awaiting findings by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general but is not planning on competing for any more state contracts.

“If there’s outcome during this audit that points to an unfair process, I would be open to explore options that set things straight,” she said.

Critics have seized on the MWW contract, saying the company’s decision to feature Mr. Christie in television ads during an election campaign gave it a big edge in the contract competition.

MWW officials said they never included that idea in their proposal.

“I commend the HUD Office of the Inspector General for investigating whether the state properly utilized taxpayer funds for this marketing campaign,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the New Jersey Democrat who requested the investigation, said in a statement this week.

State officials did not respond to questions about job titles and rates included in the MWW proposal, but they have defended the award in media reports on the HUD inquiry. The federally funded ad campaign sought to repair the state’s image and encourage tourists to visit New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, and proved controversial in part because Mr. Christie and his family were featured prominently in the winning contractor’s television ads.

“It’s simply a false narrative,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak told USA Today this week over questions about favoritism in the contract award.

“The contract was given on the merits in the same exhaustively objective process that is used for all state public contracts. The evaluation committee report bears that out,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak.

Defending the contract

MWW officials also defended the contract. In an email, Bill Murray, a spokesman, said the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which administered the contract, said the project called for work that turned out to be more expansive than what was outlined in the company’s GSA schedule list of job titles.

“Where they were comparable in level, there was a direct match in rates,” he said of the jobs listing. “Where there was a completely new function with no direct level match, a rate discounted along with the same percentages as all other rates was applied.”

Bidders were required to list positions and hourly rates at or better than what was in the companies’ price list to the GSA.

MWW’s GSA pricing list included fewer than a dozen job titles ranging from a $64.23 per-hour account coordinator to a senior vice president earning $299.73 per hour.

The company’s Sandy recovery marketing contract proposal to New Jersey officials included more than 40 job titles, records show.

“For this assignment, the work required through the [New Jersey Economic Development Authority] was more expansive than the original titles addressed, so functions were added to accommodate the work required,” Mr. Murray said in a statement.

“In addition to MWW staff functions not originally considered for GSA work, this included the addition of job titles and rates for the advertising functions of the subcontractor that was used. Again, rates were matched with comparable levels or discounted at the same percentage.”

In a separate statement, Mr. Murray said the company welcomes the inspector general’s review. He said the company’s proposal included no mention of having Mr. Christie featured in a paid ad campaign.

“Given widely inaccurate reporting on Stronger than the Storm, we welcome the inspector general’s report,” Mr. Murray said. “It will show that MWW’s proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign. The decision to include the governor was arrived at after the contract was awarded, based on timing, availability and federal expenditure rules.”

He said the company had the lowest bid and that the “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign was one of the most successful in the history of the state. He said it “had a material impact on the economic recovery of New Jersey.”

But Mr. Pallone said in his letter to the HUD inspector general that MWW charged more than $2 million above the next lowest bidder to develop the marketing campaign to promote New Jersey’s shore.

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