Sweeney Calls Sandy-Monitoring Reports ‘Almost A Whitewash’

Mark J. Magyar | July 22, 2014 | Housing, Politics, Sandy
Senate president, housing advocates demand release of full documentation so public can judge Sandy relief efforts

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester)
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who sponsored the law requiring integrity monitors to oversee superstorm Sandy recovery projects, yesterday dismissed the 24-page summary report issued by the Christie administration as “almost a whitewash.”

Sweeney and housing advocates yesterday demanded the release of all the documentation compiled by the integrity monitors — including studies that the Christie administration has refused to release on fired contractor Hammerman & Gainer. Inc., on the grounds that they are “deliberative” and “advisory” draft documents.

The 24-page summary that the Treasury Department released last week only certified work that had been done on marina projects in Perth Amboy and Atlantic Highlands, a park in Elizabeth, and the Belmar Boardwalk — a project that had been completed months before the monitoring firm started work.
The reports detail the process that the monitors conducted or planned, rather than any findings or results.

“We want detail. We want to know what we did right and what we did wrong,” said Sweeney, who expressed frustration not only with the lack of detail in the reports, but also with how long it took the administration to implement a law that Gov. Chris Christie himself signed in March 2013.

It wasn’t until this January that the first integrity monitors were hired — months after some of the work they were supposed to be overseeing had been completed — and it wasn’t until last week that the first report was delivered to the Legislature, 16 months after the law went into effect.

“My intention when I sponsored this legislation was to have these reports done as quickly as possible so that we could both prevent problems and find ways to correct them,” said Sweeney. “Unfortunately, these are months overdue and they are underwhelming to say the least.”

Sweeney contrasted the 24-page summary produced by the Sandy integrity monitors — which he said cost taxpayers $5 million — with the detailed 334-page report on Bridgegate produced by Randy Mastro’s Gibbons Dunn & Crutcher law firm for $3 million, that the Christie administration released in full. “I guess they liked that one,” Sweeney said.

Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary, dismissed Sweeney’s critique. “We have no idea where the Senate president is getting his $5 million figure,” Drewniak said in an email. “It’s completely false. The cost to date is a fraction of that, and the program is in full compliance with the statute that Senator Sweeney himself sponsored.”

Treasury spokesman Christopher Santarelli said the monitoring reports on contracts to rebuild the Belmar Boardwalk; the Atlantic Highlands marina; Elizabeth’s Waterfront Park; Perth Amboy’s marina, promenade, and bulkheads; and state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) projects cost just over $235,000 in all.

Sweeney’s office, however, insisted that the cost of the Sandy monitoring was indeed $5 million, including not only the integrity monitors hired by the Treasury Department, but also money spent to approve the eligibility of companies for Sandy contracts and CohnResnick, the monitoring firm hired by the DCA. Ernst & Young, the firm hired as the “gatekeeper” to oversee the integrity monitors, employed Todd Christie, the governor’s brother, as a senior executive.

Fair Share Housing Center attorney Adam Gordon and Staci Berger, president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, joined Sweeney in criticizing the Christie administration for its refusal to release the report prepared by consultant CohnResnick on the failures of Hammerman & Gainer Inc. (HGI), a firm that DCA fired in December.

Federal officials later found that HGI — a company that was hired despite criticism of its work effort after Hurricane Katrina — had wrongly denied hundreds of applicants. Almost 80 percent of applicants who appealed their rejections were later found to have been improperly rejected.
“There is no reason we should not have access to reports that were given to HUD,” the federal Housing and Urban Development Agency, Gordon said.

Sweeney noted that he heard numerous complaints from New Jerseyans who have been unable to get Sandy assistance — or even get answers on whether they will be able to eventually get Sandy assistance — during hearings he held in Toms River, Linden and in several Monmouth Count municipalities.

The Senate president remains angry over Christie’s veto of his “Sandy Bill of Rights,” which would have simplified the application process for Sandy recovery programs, required “plain language” explanations to storm survivors of their application status, and given greater appeal rights to those denied funding.

He and the housing advocates also said Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable should stop criticizing the federal government for the state’s failure to expeditiously process Sandy claims.

“It wasn’t the federal government that managed the intake process,” Berger noted. “It wasn’t the federal government that lost people’s applications. It wasn’t government that mysteriously denied 80 percent of applicants improperly. Certainly, no recovery project is perfect, but it doesn’t help us if we can’t say what we did wrong.”

The state has authorized just $367 million — and just $133 million has been issued — from the $1.1 billion provided by the federal government for the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program that provides grants of up to $150,000 to homeowners whose properties were damaged by Sandy, Gordon noted. It is that program that HGI originally oversaw.

“If we had a real report, we might know” who is at fault, Sweeney said. “Sometimes you just have to look in the mirror when things are not going right,” he said, asserting that whatever problems were caused by the federal government, “no one is saying the State of New Jersey moved quickly.”

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