When it rains it pours, and it's pouring right now on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
Just days after Christie fired a top aide and denied any involvement in the mounting bridge scandal comes the news that federal officials are investigating whether the governor misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds for political gain. Meanwhile back in New Jersey, state lawmakers are vowing to probe just how deep the bridge scandal goes, and whether it's indicative of a larger pattern of political retribution and favor-peddling within the Christie administration.
Though Christie did everything he could to mitigate the damage with his apologetic press conference last week, further fallout may be unavoidable. And there's the real danger for Christie: Negative headlines will be far more damaging than they would have been a few weeks ago now that his aura of invincibility has been punctured.
Back in August, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development to look into how New Jersey had spent $25 million on a marketing campaign in 2013 inviting tourists back to the storm-ravaged state. Those funds paid for TV ads featuring Christie and his family, which struck some as a blatant conflict of interest since the governor was in the midst of a reelection campaign and the ads essentially served as free — to the governor's reelection campaign, at least — publicity.
Moreover, Christie did not award the contract to produce the ads to the lowest bidder, instead picking a firm that cost the state an extra $2.2 million. The more expensive firm had proposed putting Christie in its ads, while the lower bidder did not.
Pallone told CNN on Sunday that the HUD inspector general had determined through a preliminary review that the concerns warranted a full investigation, which will take several months to complete.
Though the Sandy investigation is unrelated to the bridge scandal, its disclosure, and potential conclusion, couldn't come at a worse time for Christie.
Christie earned high praise for his handling of Sandy's aftermath and the way he seemingly put aside politics — he lauded and then literally embraced President Obama right before the 2012 election — to focus on the recovery. Any sign that he played politics with the issue — and with taxpayers' money — would undercut his carefully constructed image as a uniquely bipartisan leader.
And though it's too early to say how the story will affect Christie should he choose to tun for president in 2016, it could at least give his potential rivals a talking point to ding his integrity and fiscal conservatism. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for one, has harshly criticized Christie on that front already.
In the same way, any findings that more-closely tie Christie to the bridge scandal or further tarnish his staff would prove very damaging politically.
New Jersey lawmakers say they will "aggressively" investigate the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge after a Friday document dump linked more members of Christie's inner circle to the debacle. Though the thousands of pages of internal communications do not implicate anyone else in the coordination of the politically-motivated scheme, they do indicate more people at least knew about the brouhaha months ago — a time when they and Christie continued to purport ignorance.
On top of all that, New Jersey Senate Democrats may subpoena Christie's staffers and put a hold on his attorney general nominee; one lawmaker floated the possibility — though extremely unlikely — of impeachment if Christie is tied directly to the vindictive lane closures; and there are questions about whether Christie already lied about his relationship with one of the key players in the whole story to downplay his potential involvement.
Oh, and Christie has a big State of the State address to deliver on Tuesday, so he won't be able to lie low until the storm passes.
The initial story was bad enough for Christie, but it has also made the formerly untouchable governor more susceptible to the bad headlines beginning to trickle out. And it's also made it all the more likely that reporters and Christie's political foes will, with renewed vigor, dig up more embarrassing stories in the future.
Christie may be able to insulate himself from the bridge scandal itself, but not from the resulting fallout we're now seeing.
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