N.J. 'Stronger Than The Storm' commercials go to politically active firm
BOB JORDAN AP/ASBURY PARK PRESS
TRENTON — The "Stronger Than The Storm" TV commercials starring Gov. Chris Christie and his family
are providing a near $5 million windfall of taxpayer dollars for a politically active public relations agency, more than $2 million higher than what the runner-up firm planned to charge.
The ads are part of this season's $25 million state tourism campaign funded by the federal disaster aid package approved by Congress
after Superstorm Sandy. Under terms of a state contract, subsequent campaigns for 2014 and 2015 will be subject to the availability of additional funding.
East Rutherford-based MWW and a subcontractor are billing the state $4.7 million for employee compensation and markups to run this year's campaign, according to information obtained through a public records request by the Asbury Park Press (http://on.app.com/19G9hUx
). The remainder goes toward TV and radio commercial production, media buys and promotions.
The contract documents shine new light on the role Christie administration officials had in the TV commercials — controversial because they give Christie more exposure during a gubernatorial election year
, and also because they introduce him to voters in other states in advance of a possible 2016 presidential campaign
. The top official on the selection committee, appointed by Christie, once received a $49,000 loan from Christie when he was the U.S. attorney for New Jersey.
The two bidders had different views on how the campaign should be run. MWW proposed putting Christie in the ads. The other bidder, a team headed by the Sigma Group, did not. MWW won the contract.
The commercials are playing in the New York and Philadelphia TV markets as well as in other parts of Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Baltimore and Washington.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said MWW was the best choice of all the candidates. MWW had statewide connections that would allow it to mobilize quickly to perform the high-stakes work of boosting tourism in the first summer season since Superstorm Sandy. Tourist spending in Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties amounted to $19 billion in 2012, half of the state's total tourism direct sales.
The lucrative payday for the MWW team is $2.2 million higher than what was sought by the Sigma Group, based in Oradell, Bergen County.
Shannon Morris, president and owner of Sigma Group, said she doesn't have a clear understanding of how her firm lost out. Of the four bidders, MWW and Sigma were selected based on technical scoring by state officials for a final round of negotiations. They were also the two lowest-priced bids.
"I don't know how you can qualify that as the best value for the state," Morris said of MWW's $4.7 million contract compared to Sigma's $2.5 million offer. "You have two equally reputable firms and it's debatable if one is better than the other. And in a competition like that it should come down to price, especially when you're dealing with something as sensitive as Sandy recovery funding. To make a decision that spends $2 million more on agencies leaves me scratching my head. I don't understand it.
" A six-member bid evaluation committee of Christie administration officials picked the higher price
despite issuing a report that said Sigma's proposal also "addressed the tasks and deliverables specified in the RFQ (request for quotation) ... (and) could effectively meet the requirements of this RFQ.
" MWW is a prolific political contributor, mostly to Democrats, but its employees have given to Republican Christie. Sigma Group hasn't made political contributions.
Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor, said there's no way to tell if MWW's political muscle influenced the contract award but added, "Trying to stop money from having influence in politics is like trying to eat soup with a fork."
"Money gives a company a seat at the table and makes that company a known entity when a government hands out contracts," Hale said.
Drewniak said state officials provided a "debriefing" to Sigma after the contract award and said the company had an opportunity to formally protest the award but did not.
"The size and scope of the PR campaign that MWW undertook was far larger and more labor-intensive than any other bidder's," said Drewniak, who pointed to a season-opening promotion when Christie cut a 5-mile long ribbon symbolically linking some of the shore towns that were hardest hit by the storm. The Today Show covered the event with a live broadcast from Seaside Heights.
"That drove labor costs higher but was more effective, and thus a better value overall," Drewniak said.
MWW has made 234 corporate contributions totaling $201,300 to candidates and political committees from both parties in New Jersey since 1987. Eighteen employees have made an additional 61 donations for $63,850, according to New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission records. MWW employees donated $1,000 to Christie's 2009 Republican gubernatorial primary campaign and $1,500 to his 2010 inaugural committee.
But Michael Kempner, MWW's founder and CEO, leans Democratic. Kempner hosted a political fundraiser for President Barack Obama at his home in Cresskill in 2010 and "bundled" — the term for collecting donations from friends and associates — almost $3.1 million in campaign funds for the Democrat in 2011 and 2012.
Additionally, the MWW Group PAC spent $95,250 in the 2012 federal election cycle, with 73 percent of the money going to Democrats, though the largest single expenditure, $5,000, went to the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to OpenSecrets.org, a website that tracks the influence of money on U.S. politics.
MWW ranked seventh among the nation's public relations firms last year with $43 million in billings. The company has done work for companies such as Subaru, Jet Blue, Nikon and Samsung and has won at least nine other state contracts, handling communications campaigns for the New Jersey Lottery, the state Department of Human Services, the Board of Public Utilities, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and other state agencies.
Executives from MWW and subcontractor Brushfire — which has been the state Department of Travel and Tourism's ad agency the past seven years — made their pitch for the tourism advertising contract by saying they wanted Christie to have a starring role.
Morris, of Sigma, said her company's campaign would not have featured the governor.
The bid evaluation committee's leader was Michele Brown, who became head of the state Economic Development Authority last year at a salary of $225,000. Brown is a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey but resigned that post in 2009 amid controversy over a loan of $46,000 from Christie. The loan was given in 2007 when Christie was a U.S. attorney and she was a subordinate in his office. Christie's failure to disclose the loan became an issue in his first gubernatorial campaign. The loan has since been repaid.
Brown did not respond to requests for comment. -