Fleeced taxpayers should follow the money in the AshBritt scandal
February 26, 2013By Rob Tornoe for NewsWorks
This is commentary from political blogger and cartoonist Rob Tornoe.
A debris removal company ripping-of New Jersey towns was suggested to Gov Chris Christie by Haley Barbour, who helped Christie get elected and is throwing a fundraiser for him at the end of this month. Wasn't Christie elected to stop this type of nonsense?
During Chris Christie's successful run for Governor in 2009, Haley Barbour was Governor of Mississippi, and head of the Republican Governors Association. The two became good friends and Barbour directed $7.5 million in spending towards Christie campaign, a move Christie said was "probably one of the primary reasons that I'm governor of New Jersey."
Fast forward to October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy devastated the New Jersey shore. Barbour, now a partner at BGR Group, the lobbying firm that represents Florida debris removal company AshBritt, told Christie if he checked with AshBritt, they could start working in New Jersey the next day, due to an existing 2008 contract to clear debris in Connecticut that could be "piggybacked" in New Jersey. Hurricane Sandy struck on October 29. By October 31, AshBritt had a multi-million dollar contract in New Jersey. Days after that, AshBritt donated $50,000 to the Republican Governors Association now headed by Chris Christie.
And round and round we go on a carousel where money buys influence, secures contracts and gets politicians reelected, all at the expense of taxpayers at home. If all that wasn't bad enough. BGR Group plans on hosting a fundraiser for Christie's re-election at the end of the month, at the Virgina mansion of BGR chairman Ed Rogers. (If you don't believe me, here's the official invitation. Try not to snicker when you see the "strong leadership now" slogan). Before Christie became governor, he was U.S. Attorney, so he knows how important avoiding even the appearance of impropriety means. Hell, he ran for governor on a campaign to rid Trenton of political corruption and politics as usual. But like much of his tenure as governor, Christie has proven that his bark is much worse than his bite.
The best defense our bold leader has been able to muster when presented this pretty-clear money trail is to call the claims over AshBritt "shoddy journalism." That's one-step away from going full-Fox News and claiming it's a liberal witch-hunt by the mainstream media.
From what I've read, the Star-Ledger's "shoddy journalism" actually appears very solid, showcasing how AshBritt lined the pockets of local politicians, including Christie, in an effort to secure lucrative contracts to clear debris out of towns devastated by Hurricane Sandy. FEMA and the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security seem to agree, since they plan on looking into New Jersey's procurement process to determine if taxpayers got the best rates possible.
A total of 43 towns have operated under the AshBritt contract, and those towns have paid rates that were sometimes more than three times as much than neighboring towns that decided to contract with a different company. For example, Colts Neck bid out the work immediately after the storm to a differend Florida-based debris removal company called Bergeron, and paid them $11.70 per cubic yard, or a total of $753,959 total. Township Administrator Robert Bowden says if the town had hired AshBritt, the same job would have almost been double, $1.36 million.
Making matters worse is a group of local political heavyweights who have been paid, both directly and indirectly, to promote AshBritt's services to storm-ravaged towns. Ocean County Republican Chairman and political boss George Gilmore pitched AshBritt to Ocean County town officials, all while being paid as a consultant by AshBritt. Influential Trenton lobbyist Kris Kolluri was also recruited by BRG Group to help curry favor and steer contracts AshBritt's way.Kolluri's involvement makes it clear it's not a partisan issue. Republican or Democrat, AshBritt and BGR Group seem to have lined the pockets of anyone that could help maximize their gains in the Garden state.
Take for example the town of Belmar, which just voted to award an additional $2.6 million to AshBritt (and a total of $4.2 million). Belmar's Mayor, Matt Doherty, happens to be married to former Corzine staffer Maggie Moran, who works with AshBritt and helped manage its marketing campaign to New Jersey towns and municipalities.
Christie, who was voted into office to end this type of public corruption simply laughed at the allegations, while confirming it's business as usual. "They're shocked that these companies have hired local lobbyists to try to influence the towns to try to get the contracts," Christie said to a round of laughter.
Instead of "strong leadership now," Christie might want to think about changing his slogan to "strong leadership for hire." He might want to run that by Haley Barbour first.
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at RobTornoe.com, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.