Democratic lawmakers — questioning why New Jersey received only $15 million from a $1 billion federal competition intended to help protect states from disasters like Superstorm Sandy — said Thursday that they will seek subpoena power to get answers if the Christie administration isn’t more forthcoming.
That’s the same process lawmakers used when they investigated the George Washington Bridge scandal, a method that produced thousands of pages of documents and resulted in court challenges over subpoenas that sought testimony from those involved.
Administration officials declined an invitation to testify at a hearing held Thursday by the Legislative Oversight Committee, calling the move by lawmakers “political.” Thursday was the first day after Governor Christie ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, the committee chairman, said he doesn’t want the proceedings to become adversarial.
“But if the administration continues to maintain radio silence and in effect thumbs its nose at the legislative branch, we will certainly exercise our constitutional responsibility,” he added. “I will go to the full Senate and request subpoena authority.”
The committee wants to find out what went wrong with a grant application that resulted in New Jersey winning the smallest amount of money in the competition for disaster resiliency funds — an application the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary called “weaker” than the others when he detailed the funding last month.
New Jersey was among 40 finalists that made the final cut in the HUD competition last June. The state had asked for $300 million, with most of it proposed for flood control in the Meadowlands. They received just $15 million, compared with $176 million for New York City and another $35.8 million for New York State.
HUD Secretary Julian Castro told reporters in a conference call in January that “New Jersey submitted a weaker application on several measures.”
On Thursday, witnesses that did appear before the committee called the state’s application “crazy,” “astonishing,” “disappointing” and “obscene.”
One of them was Amanda Devecka Rinear, of the New Jersey Organizing Project, an advocacy group founded by residents whose homes were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
“I find it incredible that an application for disaster resiliency didn’t include the four counties that were hardest hit,” she said, referring to Atlantic, Ocean, Monmouth and Cape May counties.
She later called the application “an epic fail.”
Brief partisan tussle
The 90-minute hearing began with a brief partisan skirmish over who was not in attendance.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, questioned why no one from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which submitted the grant application, had accepted the committee’s invitation to speak. She also suggested the committee seek subpoena power from the entire Senate to compel their testimony.
“We need those very same people who have that [information] to give us the courtesy to come here,” she said.
But Republican members of the committee questioned why no federal officials were called to the hearing.
“I think it’s fine to have department heads from the state government come here,” said Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth. “But we should ask HUD to come here and explain to us why they didn’t think New Jersey’s application was sufficient.”
When asked about the DEP’s absence from the hearing, a Christie spokeswoman said the committee should be seeking answers from HUD officials.
“It’s hard to view this hearing as anything but political, given the lack of information from HUD on their questionable treatment of New Jersey,” Christie spokeswoman Joelle Farrell wrote in an email.
She called HUD’s scoring process and criteria “highly subjective” and questioned why the agency put the $1 billion in grant money up for a national competition rather than apply it to the areas hardest hit by Sandy.
“HUD’s explanation makes no sense whatsoever and only raises more questions that demand answers and an investigation by Congress or the inspector general,” Farrell added. “Rather than conduct political committee hearings, the legislative Democrats should be seeking answers from HUD.”
Several witnesses, however, raised questions about what New Jersey chose to include and not include in its application, including a bus station in the Meadowlands.
“One of the things about this application that really astonished me and I still don’t understand and I just wished someone could explain it to me in a way that makes sense, is how building a bus station in the Meadowlands protects anybody from flooding?” said Bill Sheehan of the Hackensack Riverkeeper environmental group.
Sheehan, after the hearing, questioned whether requests like that had less to do with flood control and more to do with the fact that the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is nearly out of money.
He also questioned if a spate of retirements from the ranks of the DEP in recent years might have hurt the agency’s ability to draft a highly technical application.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, questioned whether New Jersey’s application lost points for not addressing issues such as sea level rise and climate change. He also said the application suffered by not presenting an overall climate resiliency plan.
“It can’t be done town by town, it has to be done regionally,” he said.
Robert Freudenberg, director of energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, said some of New Jersey’s competitors have done better on that score.
“New York City is ahead of the curve on resiliency,” he said.
Gordon said he plans to continue the hearings and hopes to have representatives of both the DEP and HUD testify.