By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK, Jan 13 (Reuters) - U.S. investigators are looking into whether embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie misused about $2 million in Superstorm Sandy relief funds for an ad campaign that put him in the spotlight in an election year, a lawmaker said on Monday.
Already enmeshed in a scandal over snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge, Christie, a rising star in the Republican party, is now being audited by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat.
The inspector is focusing on a federally financed $25 million Jersey Shore marketing campaign that included a television commercial featuring Christie and his family, which cost $2 million more than a competing bid without them.
"It is inappropriate for taxpayer-funded dollars that are critical to our state's recovery from this natural disaster to fund commercials that could potentially benefit a political campaign," Pallone said in an Aug. 8, 2013 letter requesting the investigation.
"While promoting tourism at the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is certainly a worthy endeavor, recent reports have led me to believe that the state has irresponsibly misappropriated funding allocated by Congress from the Sandy aid package and taken advantage of this waiver for political purposes," the letter said.
The winning ad, with the tag line that New Jersey was "Stronger than the Storm," aired in the spring as Christie headed into a re-election campaign to win a second term.
On Oct. 29, 2012, Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast. The historic storm killed at least 159 people, and damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes, many in Pallone's district on the Jersey Shore, where the storm made landfall.
"Had Governor Christie chosen the less expensive firm, $2.2 million in federal disaster aid could have potentially been directed elsewhere, for example, to provide 44 Sandy-impacted homeowners $50,000 grants to raise their homes," Pallone said in a press release.
There was no immediate response to calls and emails to Christie's office for comment.
News of the audit arrives in the shadow of a scandal dubbed "Bridgegate" by tabloids, in which a massive traffic jam was orchestrated by Christie's staff in September, apparently as political payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who didn't endorse Christie for reelection.
Christie, a likely contender for the White House in 2016, last week fired a top aide who called for the closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge, and has denied knowledge of the scheme.
The Democratic Assembly speaker-elect said he planned to call the New Jersey Legislature into a special session this week to continue to investigate the four-day incident, which paralyzed Fort Lee, on the Jersey side of the bridge.
U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has opened an investigation into the decision to close the lanes.
The governor also faces a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday by Rosemarie Arnold, a lawyer charging that area residents suffered financially from being trapped in traffic. (Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)
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