Some N.J. Lawmakers Question Transparency of Sandy Recovery Programs

May 15, 2014

Some New Jersey lawmakers used a hearing Monday to complain that Gov. Chris Christie is not living up to his promise of transparency when it comes to rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy.

The Assembly State and Local Government committee asked questions Monday of David Ridolfino, the associate deputy state treasurer who oversees a monitoring program that has not yet produced any public reports yet 14 months after a law was adopted requiring an independent examination of Sandy-related contracts worth more than $5 million.

Ridolfino said that the first of the quarterly integrity monitor reports are due July 1 and will be sent to lawmakers soon after that.

While the topic Monday was the reports, the hearing was the latest in an argument that has been going on since last year between the Christie administration and critics of its Sandy recovery program who say that despite various oversight procedures, relatively little has been made public on how well the state is carrying out its biggest-ever disaster recovery effort. They say that there is no central place online where residents can track the spending of all of the pieces of a $1.8 billion federal recovery grant that is being allocated by the state government.

Lawmakers and advocates are particularly frustrated with the handling of a program that gives grants up to $150,000 to homeowners to help repair or replace storm-damaged structures.

This year, the state cut ties with Hammerman & Gainer, the New Orleans-based firm hired to oversee the application process. State officials have said the split was over “performance issues,” but have not disclosed what they were.

“That contractor was hired and fired under the cloak of darkness and we know that it was fraught with problems,” said Assemblywoman Linda Stender, a Democrat from Fanwood. “People are still suffering, still waiting to get back into their homes, still waiting for the grant money that the federal government appropriated.”

Ridolfino said there is oversight of the government’s spending. The integrity monitors that have been hired so far to look into the practices of eight units of government can notify law enforcement officials or the state comptroller of possible fraud.

Further, he said, some state government agencies have hired firms to help their own internal auditors track spending, and there is recovery information on one state website, though it does not include the total amounts of all contracts allocated so far.

He said there are features of the law that may have slowed the monitors’ reports. One complication is that contracts over $5 million are to be audited. He said there are cases where total projects are more expensive than that but do not include any $5 million single contracts. Those projects are not in line for the monitoring.

Also, Ridolfino said, some federal agencies — he did not say which — have been reluctant to approve federal aid for the reporting, partly because state agencies have also been using federal money for their internal reports, which he said are not independent.

Ridolfino said he believes that all the auditing has not slowed down the pace of the state’s storm recovery.

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