When there is still snow on the ground past St. Patrick’s Day, thoughts turn longingly to the beach. Say, the Jersey Shore. Which in turn brings to mind the extreme yet comically ham-handed efforts of Governor Chris Christie’s administration to keep secret the process that led to the controversial selection exactly one year ago of a firm to run a $25 million ad campaign for last summer’s tourist season touting the Shore’s comeback from Superstorm Sandy.
As you may recall, Christie came under criticism during his reelection campaign last summer for having inserted himself and his family into the rousing “Stronger than the Storm” ads encouraging tourists to come back to the Jersey Shore. The ads had been funded by federal Sandy recovery aid, and it seemed eyebrow-raising, at the least, for them to feature beaming pictures of a governor in the middle of a reelection campaign, rather than just your average smiling New Jerseyans. The eyebrows shot up quite a bit further when it emerged that the firm that had gotten the job and agreed to feature Christie in its ads, public relations giant MWW, had bid its labor costs at a much higher price—$4.7 million versus $2.5 million—than a well-regarded New Jersey ad firm that had also bid for the work.* Making matters even more interesting was that the award had been made by a selection committee led by Christie’s very close longtime aide, Michele Brown, whom Christie appointed to run the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, a $225,000 post. Also noteworthy was that MWW had hired just a few months earlier the former executive director of the influential Burlington County Republican Party. (It was also hard not to notice that MWW's founder and CEO, Michael Kempner, who is normally a loyal Democratic donor, was not writing any big checks to Barbara Buono, Christie's opponent, last year. MWW dismisses this fact, noting that Kempner has given far more heavily to national candidates than state ones and had raised money for Jon Corzine, Buono's predecessor as Democratic candidate for governor, only because he was a good friend.) New Jersey congressman Frank Pallone, a Democrat, in January asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to audit the awarding of the job to make sure federal contracting rules were followed.
Further raising the intrigue around the “Stronger than the Storm” ads has been the lengths to which the Christie administration has gone to keep secret the relevant documentation. When Shannon Morris, the president of the New Jersey company, Sigma Group, that came in second to MWW, last summer requested the state’s evaluations of the proposals to better understand why her firm had lost, she received almost nothing in response. “Typically when you have a state-run bid like that you have…it fully transparent, it’s all posted online,” Morris told me. “There was nothing like that in this case.” When Asbury Park Press reporter Bob Jordan made an open-records request for the scoresheets that the selection committee members filled out to rank the ad proposals, the state returned to him in January the scoresheets—with the names of the committee members redacted.
Knowing this, I was heartened to find that my own request for the scoresheets was returned to me later in January with the names of the committee members fully disclosed. I planned to include details from the scoresheets in a cover story on Christie that I was in the process of writing, but the piece’s main thrust veered away from the Sandy ads, and I decided to revisit that issue later. This week, when I went to do just that, I discovered that the Internet link the Economic Development Authority had given me for the reams of documents I had requested was no longer operable. I asked that the documents be resent. They were, and lo, this time the names of the committee members were redacted from the scoresheets. When I asked the authority’s legal officer, Shane McDougall, about the discrepancy, he replied that “if the original documents had been disseminated without these redactions, it was done inadvertently.” He added that the redaction of names was done “on the basis of the advisory, consultative, and deliberative privilege, the expectation of privacy and the protection of the competitive bidding process.”
This retroactive redaction might have been maddening were it not so ineffective: I had seen enough between what had been sent before and what was in the newly redacted documents to piece together the story behind the evaluation process. Put simply, there was no contest whatsoever between MWW on the one hand and Sigma Group and the two other finalists on the other hand. In fact, reading the scoresheets is a bit like looking at the scores of the East Bloc figure skating judges at the Olympics during the height of the Cold War.
The average score the six committee members gave MWW’s proposal, out of 1000 possible points, was 953. The average score for Sigma Group's proposal was 718.
And as I had taken note of when I had first seen the unredacted scoresheets, the differential was the largest of all in the evaluation by Michele Brown, who has a very long history with Christie: she is a longtime close neighbor of his in Mendham Township, she traveled extensively with him when she worked alongside him in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, she received a $46,000 loan from him in 2007 that he failed to report on his income taxes, and she took the lead in screening open-records requests for his tenure as U.S. Attorney while he was campaigning for governor in 2009. In her new role as head of the Economic Development Authority, she was in charge of the selection committee for the Sandy ad. And she, more than anyone else on the committee, made sure to put MWW far ahead of the competition—she gave MWW a score of 970, above even the high average score it received overall, and she gave Sigma Group only 590, by far its lowest score. (A spokesman at the Economic Development Authority did not respond to a request for comment from Brown.)
Matching the other scoresheets to the committee members was not exactly a forensic challenge. One of the sheets had an evaluator’s name accidentally left unredacted—Jackie Kemery, a procurement analyst in the state’s Department of the Treasury, who gave MWW a score of 940 and Sigma a score of 750—and it required only rudimentary handwriting analysis to match with a high degree of confidence the other scoresheets with the handwriting on other, unredacted paperwork filled out by the committee members that had been included in records I received. (The other committee members included Maureen Hassett, senior vice president for finance and development at the Economic Development Authority; Sara Maffey-Duncan, deputy director of the authority’s Office of Recovery; Melissa Orsen, chief of staff in the Department of State within the Lieutenant Governor’s office; and Gabrielle Gallagher, director of legal and regulatory affairs at the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees state aid to towns and cities.)
Which raises the question: why in the world was the Christie administration going to such lengths to obscure such basic facts about the selection process as which committee members awarded which sky-high scores to MWW? Morris, the head of Sigma Group, has a pretty good hunch: that the administration is doing anything it can to cover up the fact that the selection process had been essentially rigged from the get-go, which is the thought that came to her when she got to see the proposal from MWW. MWW and the ad firm it was partnering with, Brushfire, had less experience in this realm than did Sigma and the big national ad firm it partnered with, Weber Shandwick; whereas Weber Shandwick had produced comeback ads for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, MWW’s application cited Brushfire’s experience making ads for Minwax, Thompson’s Water Seal and DeLonghi cappuccino machines. Given that contrast, Morris thought “we had a slam dunk here” to get the job.
But then she saw MWW’s proposal, and it was far, far beyond what her firm had managed to put together in the four days they’d been given to submit a proposal. Whereas Sigma had basic storyboards for the ads it was proposing, MWW had “fully conceptualized” apps, video games, and other digital components on top of its conventional ad proposal. “It was like looking at a 10-day term paper versus a 150-page book,” she said. "I don’t know how you do that unless someone had a head start.” To rebut this, MWW has produced internal company e-mail traffic showing that it learned of the request for bids only five days out.
As it happens, Morris did get one communication back from Michele Brown after her repeated attempts to get an explanation for being passed over: Brown sent Morris a form letter congratulating her for being named one of New Jersey’s “Best 50 Women in Business.” The letter urged Morris to reach out to Brown if she ever needed any assistance, so Morris wrote her asking again for an explanation of the contract award.
She never heard back.
*Correction, 4 p.m. March 19: MWW, which did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, has since noted that its initial ad proposal did not include the inclusion of Chris Christie, as this article initially stated, but rather that it agreed to that step after making its initial pitch. The article has also been updated to include MWW's response regarding Michael Kempner's lack of contributions to Barbara Buono's campaign and its response regarding Shannon Morris's suggestion that MWW's proposal was so strong that it was if it had gotten a head start.
MWW has also issued a statement relating to these points and others:
“MWW wishes to point out the following: First, the article calls the contract an 'ad campaign.' In fact, the state asked for an integrative marketing campaign, of which ads were just one part. Second, and to this point, MWW’s labor costs were higher than Sigma’s because MWW proposed (and ultimately executed) a robust earned media campaign driven by over two dozen promotional events; the construction of digital assets including an integrative website, mobile platform, and Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr rollouts; and destination marketing organization (DMO) activation and support, which also required considerable staff time. Sigma’s proposal was far less ambitious and lacked specific programming around these areas. Finally, MWW’s proposal did not suggest including Governor Christie in paid ads; both firms have publicly acknowledged that the prospect was raised hypothetically during in-person interviews, and both firms have acknowledged that they answered similarly by expressing their openness to the client’s ideas.” — Josh Zeitz, MWW Senior Vice President and Deputy Head of Corporate Reputation