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Ethicists Question Christie’s Free Cowboy Tickets

By Maddie Hanna and Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

TRENTON, N.J. — Of the five Dallas Cowboys games Gov. Christie has attended this season, team owner Jerry Jones supplied the tickets for three — along with a private plane ride for Christie and his family to attend Sunday’s game in Texas, the governor’s office said Monday.

While New Jersey’s rules allow the governor, a longtime Cowboys fan, to accept gifts from friends, two legal experts questioned whether the gifts gave the appearance of improper conduct.

“We’re going to see. This is a lot of money, being paid for by somebody who is an owner of a team in the NFL. The NFL has wanted a lot of things in New Jersey,” said Larry Noble, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission and now senior counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington.

The gifts create an impression of buying or attempting to buy influence or favor, he said. “Ethics laws are very much about impressions and appearances,” Noble said.

Spokesmen for Christie did not respond to a request for comment Monday night on the ethics of the situation.

Christie’s office earlier Monday cited the governor’s Code of Conduct — an executive order with “more malleable” gift rules than those applying to other executive branch employees, according to Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall University law professor who specializes in government ethics.

The code permits the governor to accept “gifts, favors, services, gratuities, meals, lodging or travel expenses from relatives or personal friends that are paid for with personal funds.”

The governor, a Republican, is contemplating a run for president in 2016.

Christie’s interactions with Jones have been on prominent display this season, antagonizing some sports fans, including in Philadelphia.

When the Cowboys beat the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field last month, the sight of Christie high-fiving the rival team’s owner didn’t sit well with many fans in the area.

The flood of attention continued Sunday during the Cowboys’ playoff win over the Detroit Lions in Texas. A video of Christie going up for a high-five, then going in for a group hug with Jones, was quickly circulated on social media, spurring much commentary.

Christie — who flew to the game with his family on a private plane after they had vacationed in the Bahamas, the governor’s office said — suggested in a radio interview Monday that he has been a lucky charm for the Cowboys.

Noting the team has won all five of the games he’s attended — and that he’s worn the same orange sweater to each — Christie said, “There are some people in my universe who believe that becomes a good-luck thing.”

In the WFAN interview, Christie said he hoped to travel this Sunday to Lambeau Field, where the Cowboys will face the Green Bay Packers.

At one point, host Boomer Esiason remarked that the “governor gets paid a lot of money to do all these things.”

Christie responded, “Easy now.”

Unlike other New Jersey executive branch employees, Christie is permitted by the governor’s Code of Conduct to accept gifts “as long as those are paid for with personal funds and are not intended to influence” his actions as governor, Franzese said.

The tickets and travel could be considered a gift from one friend to another, for “an innocent fun football weekend,” she said. “It gets sticky when one wonders whether the gift-giving is intended to curry some kind of favor, now or in the future.”

Christie and Jones “struck up a relationship over the last two or three years and they’re good friends,” said Rich Dalrymple, vice president of public relations for the Cowboys.

Noble, of the Campaign Legal Center, said friendship exemptions in ethics laws are “intended to cover situations where you have a long-term friend” who sends a birthday gift, not friends made in Christie’s “professional capacity as governor.” He questioned whether Jones had paid for the tickets personally, or whether the Cowboys had.

Dalrymple said he did not know the cost of the tickets Christie received or details on the plane ride.

He also didn’t know whether Jones or the team had paid for the tickets — a question Christie’s spokesmen did not respond to Monday night. The governor’s office said earlier that Jones “provided both the ticket and transportation at no expense to New Jersey taxpayers.”

“Technically, I guess they’re paid for by the Cowboys,” Dalrymple said. Jones “is the Cowboys, in terms of ownership of the team.”

The state has paid for Christie’s security detail at the games, though police didn’t disclose costs Monday.

“He’s the governor 24/7, and we provide security for him at all times,” said Capt. Stephen Jones of the New Jersey State Police.

Screenshot: YouTube

Two Years After Hurricane Sandy, Thousands Await Aid To Rebuild

By Maddie Hanna and Andrew Seidman, The Philadelphia Inquirer

TRENTON, N.J. — Two years after Hurricane Sandy battered the Jersey Shore, the state has distributed about a quarter of the money allocated by the federal government, as thousands of homeowners await aid to rebuild.

Of the $3.26 billion the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has provided to New Jersey, state officials say they had paid out $802 million as of Sept. 30. More than half of the money went to homeowners. Some went to businesses, municipalities and housing developers.

The federal government provided its first allocation, $1.8 billion, to the state about seven months after the storm. The state has yet to distribute any of the $1.46 billion approved by HUD in May. A final round of $880 million is expected next spring.

That round, state officials say, will be enough to cover everyone on the waiting list for the state’s main housing fund, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, which offers homeowners grants of up to $150,000. The state has given $10,000 grants to 18,500 people to encourage them to stay in their communities.

Some people also have received aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has given out $422 million in housing and other assistance.

For those awaiting money, the recovery effort has not moved fast enough.

“Why, after two years, are people still out of their homes?” said Sandy Trebour, who began to rebuild her Sandy-destroyed house in Brick with help from a flood-insurance payout, but is awaiting a RREM grant to finish.

Trebour, who received some state assistance to rent a home, said she and her husband have had to run through their savings while also making mortgage payments.

“I don’t know how anything can take two years when you have people out of their homes,” she said.

Of 630 New Jersey residents tracked by the Monmouth University Polling Institute who were forced from their homes for at least a month after Sandy or whose home sustained $8,000 in damages, 40 percent were still displaced, according to a survey released Tuesday.

Just one in three of those surveyed reported being satisfied with the state’s recovery effort, and 71 percent said they felt they had been forgotten. The survey results statistically do not represent the broader population of residents recovering from Sandy, the institute said, but still show the effect of the recovery’s slow pace.

State officials said last week that of 8,900 homeowners preliminarily approved for the RREM program, about half had signed grant agreements. As of Sept. 30, the state had disbursed $285 million to homeowners in the program, officials said.

An additional 2,100 people remain on a waiting list. More people could become eligible for grants depending on a state review of applications initially rejected.

By comparison, New York City has distributed $58 million to help repair 150 homes and start construction at 700 others. New York state has awarded $495 million to 9,500 homeowners through its main housing program, but they have not all received the full amount yet.

About 6,000 other applicants are awaiting aid or will not be eligible, said a spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The Oct. 29, 2012, storm caused 117 deaths in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Connecticut and Maryland. In New Jersey, it caused severe or major damage to 40,500 owner-occupied homes and 15,600 rental units, and unprecedented property and economic damages, the state said.

Touting progress in the state’s recovery last week at a fire station in Toms River, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said rebuilding would be “a multi-year effort.”

While businesses and infrastructure have been repaired, Christie said, “housing is going to take the longest.” He said the mayor of Biloxi, Miss., recently told him it took eight years to rebuild housing there after Hurricane Katrina.

“This is long, painstaking, difficult work,” Christie said, acknowledging residents’ frustration. “It’s been frustrating for me, too.”

Residents in the station applauded, though some also expressed concerns about the governor’s handling of the recovery. “He had a forceful presence in the very beginning,” said Carol Raab Davis, who is waiting for a grant to elevate her house in Toms River. “And then, when a year passed, everyone felt we should be home.”

The state’s recovery effort has come under fire for a number of reasons, including the firing of the contractor in charge of the RREM program, allegations that the grant process had been politicized, and complaints from housing advocates that the state assigned too little priority to helping renters.

A Christie spokesman did not make the governor available for an interview for this article.

State officials have said their efforts were hampered by the federal government’s initial delay in allocating money and remained slowed by red tape, including required environmental reviews of damaged properties.

Critics have said the state should have performed those reviews for homeowners more quickly — a step it is now taking, said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs.

Other recent changes to the RREM program cited by Ryan include giving grant applicants the options to email and fax documents instead of driving them to a housing center; to receive a 50 percent advance payment upon signing a grant award; and to choose their own contractors.

In the past, the state offered homeowners the option of using a preapproved contractor rather than finding their own.

That approach caused problems for Frank and Pat Sinquett, who in January were awarded $150,000 to rebuild their house in Brick.

Ten months later, they aren’t back home, after RREM rejected estimates by state-approved contractors as too expensive, Frank Sinquett said.

After the couple found their own contractor and got their plans approved, they had to wait for permits from the township.

“We’re very grateful to get the money,” Sinquett said. “But it’s a shame it takes so long.”

Ryan, the Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman, said the state could not comment on specific cases because of federal privacy regulations.

Complicating the state’s recovery was its decision to hire Hammerman & Gainer Inc., a Louisiana firm that oversaw a Katrina grant program.

New Jersey fired HGI in December, six months into the job, later citing poor performance. HGI improperly rejected scores of applications for aid. In a settlement agreement with several advocacy groups, the state in May agreed to review the rejected applications. Ryan said that review was ongoing.

New Jersey has paid HGI $36 million; the company says the state still owes it $22 million. Arbitration is scheduled for April.

The state has paid $75 million to six other contractors currently assisting with housing programs, state data show. It owes them $40 million more.

Homeowners who have been promised money say it isn’t always quick to arrive. Tom Largey said that when his parents signed a grant agreement Sept. 3 for $150,000, they were told they would get the money in installments over six to eight weeks.

So far, they’ve received one check for $7,193 to rebuild their Sea Bright home — and were recently told it would be an additional five to six weeks before more money would be released.

“There’s always an excuse, there’s always a delay, there’s always another equivocation,” Largey said.

Some back in their homes also await resolution.

Debbie Fortier and her husband, Tom, moved into a new house in Brick this month, though they have yet to be awarded money after being taken off the RREM program wait-list in July. They hope to be reimbursed for $25,000 they spent trying to repair their original home before township officials said they had to tear it down.

While Debbie Fortier is glad to be home, elsewhere along her street, neighbors are just starting to knock houses down.

“I feel bad,” she said. “I know what they have to go through.”

Photo via Flickr

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