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By Karen Sudol and Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Just as a second round of federal disaster aid is reaching New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie’s administration faces a critical juncture in the Superstorm Sandy recovery: Can it fix a litany of grant funding problems identified by storm victims, advocacy groups and lawmakers who are doubtful that much will change?

As New Jersey began to dole out $1.8 billion in relief aid last spring, legislative and state offices were flooded with complaints about lost paperwork and unknowledgeable representatives. A disproportionate number of African-American and Latino applicants were denied aid, a housing advocacy group said. And a company charged with overseeing programs that provide grants for the repair or rebuilding of homes was quietly fired by the state because of “performance-related concerns.”

Christie has placed most of the blame on Congress for delaying approval of the aid and has pointed to stringent federal requirements that have caused further delays. But he has acknowledged that New Jersey made mistakes and can do better. And while the state appears to be taking steps to avoid similar problems when overseeing the distribution of an additional $1.46 billion, critics still have concerns.

“I wish I could say that the state would do things better and differently than what they did with the first pot of money, but it doesn’t appear that they’ve heard any of the complaints, criticism or suggestions for the last six months,” said Staci Berger, the president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a statewide association of 150 community development organizations. “People would have more respect for the process if the governor and administration said we did a bad job in this and we’re going to fix it. That’s the part that doesn’t ring true.”

Sandy victims have taken issue primarily with the slow pace at which the money — intended to help homeowners and businesses recover from the damage incurred during the storm that hit on Oct. 29, 2012 — has been distributed.

On the commercial end, the state Economic Development Authority has issued only about $13 million of $100 million in grants to 270 of 1,540 businesses that have applied, a spokeswoman said.

The New Jersey Main Street Alliance, a small-business advocacy group, said many businesses had been forced to resubmit paperwork multiple times and had seen a high turnover rate among grant administrators. Corrine Horowitz, the group’s business representative, said the alliance wanted the state to expedite its awarding of grants and hold a hearing for business owners with concerns.

An Economic Development Authority spokeswoman said the agency had made changes to speed up the process, such as reducing the number of documents required by applicants.

But the bulk of the complaints have been made about the state’s residential housing assistance programs.

The Fair Share Housing Center, an organization that defends the housing rights of the state’s poor, received a slew of complaints about the way Louisiana-based Hammerman and Gainer Inc. administered the state’s largest housing aid programs for storm victims. One particular focus was the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, known as RREM, that offers up to $150,000 for the repair, rebuilding and raising of homes.

The housing center says it found that African-Americans and Latinos were rejected at much higher rates than Caucasians applying for the same relief. It also discovered that there were problems with the data being used to award grants, resulting in erroneous denials. Of those who appealed denials, 80 percent were awarded money.

At just about the time the housing center’s findings were released in December, it was learned that Hammerman and Gainer Inc. had been fired — something state officials disclosed only in response to media inquiries. The state agreed to pay the company a $10.5 million settlement to sever the contract. But the firm filed a request for arbitration last month, arguing that the state still owed HGI $18.43 million.

Another outstanding question is how the company billed the state for $51.2 million for seven months of work even though the three-year contract was capped at $67.7 million. HGI appears to offer as an explanation that it performed work outside the scope of its contract and at an accelerated rate. The company says state officials agreed to pay the firm for this additional work and manpower.

Adam Gordon, the housing center’s attorney, said that without the state’s specifying why HGI was fired, it was hard to ensure that similar problems would not occur with the new round of financing.

“I think this is really a cautionary tale about what happens in an absolutely critical disaster recovery situation when there’s an outside contractor hired and there’s really no oversight from the state,” Gordon said Thursday. “The state ends up spending tens of millions of dollars and does not get the results that it needs to help people return to their homes.”

Carol Davis, a resident of the Silverton section of Toms River, is one of thousands of storm victims who remain on a waiting list for money to elevate her home. She said it was hard to navigate the various grant programs, and she’s constantly trying to keep neighbors — many who have been unable to return to their homes — informed of new programs and deadlines.

She recently asked the governor at a town hall-style event in Toms River if the state could better train program staff and mail residents information about new grants and deadlines.

Christie told her that the state had improved the way it disseminated information after receiving complaints.

After the event, Davis said she still thinks the state could do a better job.

“The grants should be knowledge to everybody, it shouldn’t be a secret,” she said.

Christie has noted that New Jersey has earmarked more money for recovery than both New York City and New York state — New Jersey has set aside $1 billion, with New York and New York City putting aside $240 million and $370 million, respectively. But he admitted at that event that the state needed to improve its programs going forward.

“We’re working on ways to become better at it,” he said. “I never promised you, nor would I, that this was going to be mistake-free. We’re setting up a whole separate government in essence to run these programs, and it’s hard.”

The state’s past experience could provide vital lessons in distributing the next round of money, which is expected to begin in late spring or early summer.

Officials from the state Department of Community Affairs, which contracted with HGI and is now administering the housing programs, said they had taken steps to improve the housing rehabilitation program, including better training of staff and the overhauling of its information technology systems.

“Given these meaningful improvements, the challenging experience that some RREM applicants have had in the past will not likely continue, moving forward,” said Lisa Ryan, a department spokeswoman. “Every day we strive to enhance, streamline and improve the program so that we get all eligible RREM awardees the help they need to get their homes and lives back to normal.”

Photo: acccarrino via Flickr

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Tina Peters

YouTube Screenshot

A right-wing conspiracy theorist who was indicted in March on criminal charges of tampering with voting machines to try to prove former President Donald Trump's lies of a stolen 2020 presidential election on Tuesday lost the Republican primary to run for secretary of state of Colorado, the person who oversees its elections.

With 95 percent of the vote counted, Tina Peters, the clerk and recorder of Mesa County, Colorado, was in third place, trailing the winner, fellow Republican Pam Anderson, 43.2 percent to 28.3 percent.

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