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Ad firm head: We were asked about using Christie in post-Sandy campaign

By Chris Frates, CNN Investigative Correspondent
January 15, 2014 -- Updated 1838 GMT (0238 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Firm with lowest bid for post-Sandy campaign was asked about using Gov. Chris Christie, it says
  • "We didn't want to commit one way or the other," firm President Shannon Morris says
  • All members of the panel that picked the winning firm were part of the Christie administration
  • Morris' firm lost the contract to a company that charged about $2 million more

(CNN) -- The president of an advertising firm that lost a $25 million contract to create a marketing campaign promoting the Jersey Shore told CNN Tuesday that the evaluation committee asked her team whether they would be comfortable featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the ads.

The news comes as federal investigators are looking into whether Christie improperly used some of that money to produce tourism ads that featured him and his family while he ran for re-election.

The New Jersey ad agency Sigma Group had the lowest bid on labor and markup costs but lost the contract to a firm charging about $2 million more.

Sigma Group President Shannon Morris told CNN that her team was asked during the pitch meeting "if we would be open to featuring Chris Christie in the ads."

"We didn't want to commit one way or the other. We were confident in the creative direction that we had presented. Our opinion was that maybe they knew something we didn't about the requirement or maybe they felt strongly for one reason or another that he should be included," she said. "We also wanted to stand behind the work that we had submitted that didn't feature the governor or any other celebrity."

It turns out that the committee evaluating the proposals is made up entirely of people who work for the Christie administration. And perhaps the most controversial of the members is Michele Brown, the chief executive of the state's Economic Development Authority.

She's one of the six voting members on the evaluation committee and has a long history with Christie. When Christie was U.S. attorney, Brown was a prosecutor. She resigned after revelations that Christie had given her a $46,000 loan in 2007 and had not reported it.

After resigning, Brown went into private law practice, but in 2012, Christie named her to her current post. CNN was not able to reach Brown for comment.

The other voting members are also tied to Christie. Two work with Brown at the Economic Development Authority. Another is chief of staff to Christie's lieutenant governor. And the two others are representatives from the community affairs and treasury departments, all of which ultimately answer to Christie.

Some critics slammed Christie over the summer for starring in taxpayer-funded ads as he was running for re-election in November, arguing it gave him an unfair advantage. But others argued that he was the face of the Sandy recovery, so it made sense to put him in the ads.

On Tuesday, the office the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general issued a statement about the inquiry, first reported by CNN, that said it had begun an audit in September "to examine whether the State administered its Tourism Marketing Program in accordance with applicable departmental and Federal requirements."

The inspector general also said, "This is an audit and not an investigation of the procurement process." The inspector general uses the term "investigation" to denote a law enforcement probe.

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