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ASBURY PARK, N.J. - A federal watchdog says New Jersey could be forced to repay nearly $20 million in federal Superstorm Sandy recovery funds if the state can't prove it paid a reasonable price for the 2013 "Stronger Than the Storm" advertising campaign that featured Gov. Chris Christie.

The report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general Wednesday said state officials supplied contract auditors with spotty paperwork and did not produce employee timesheets that should have accompanied a vendor's payment invoices.

Up to $19.5 million may have to be repaid to the federal government by the state if it cannot prove that the media purchases, such as for TV time, were done through competitive means, the inspector general said. Also at risk: $3.5 million in labor costs billed by the vendor, MWW Group. "The state did not have timesheets to support $3.5 million in labor costs charged by the contractor's employees," the auditor found.

If the money does have to be repaid, it would come from state taxpayers.

The HUD investigation comes a year after an Asbury Park Press investigation raised questions about the cost of the contract and how it was awarded by the state.

The campaign's TV commercials, featuring Christie and his family, aired in 2013 while Christie was running for re-election. Democratic challenger Barbara Buono said the ads gave the incumbent an unfair advantage, but auditors said Christie's appearance did not violate federal procurement requirements because the commercials included no political message.

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said the state is taking corrective action on the contract paperwork in connection to MWW of East Rutherford.

"The audit noted that there was nothing improper whatsoever in the content of the ad campaign or in the selection of MWW as the highest overall scored bidder with the best final offer," Roberts said.

MWW won the contract over runner-up Sigma/Weber Shandwick. MWW requested $4.7 million for contractor costs as its final and best offer, $2.2 million over Sigma's final offer for contractor costs. Those costs were for profit and staffing and production expenses, and excluded media purchases, such as for TV time.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Feds fault N.J.'s handling of $25M ad campaign

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