The federal inquiry into the "Stronger than the Storm" tourism ad campaign featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is an "audit" and "not an investigation," the inspector general handling the matter said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
The statement released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)'s Inspector General David Montoya characterized the audit as routine, clarified that it was "not an investigation," and stated that the inquiry was not concerned specifically with the procurement process.
Audits are "something that this office does routinely," Montoya said in the statement.
"This is an audit and not an investigation of the procurement process," he added.
Rep. Frank Pallone, the Democratic congressman who requested the inquiry last August, has suggested in interviews this week that the federal agency has launched a "full-scale investigation" into the reasons state officials awarded the marketing contract to MWW, a national public relations firm based in New Jersey.
Pallone indicated to CNN on Monday that MWW won the bid over the runner-up, Sigma Group, because it agreed "it would put [Christie] and his family in the ad. They were chosen. The question is how did that process come about."
"I think the fact that the inspector general has now said they're going to conduct a full-scale investigation is significant," Pallone added.
The comments echo Pallone's press release on Monday about the audit. "At issue is the bidding process for the campaign and released documents," it read.
After Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast in October 2012, the federal government awarded $25 million in aid for a state marketing campaign aimed at promoting tourism last summer at the Jersey Shore — an area badly damaged.
"An audit was initiated in September 2013 to examine whether the State administered its Tourism Marketing Program in accordance with applicable departmental and Federal requirements," said Montoya in the statement.
An Asbury Park Press article last August first raised questions about whether MWW promised the state during the pitch process that Christie would appear in the television ads. After reading the article, Pallone wrote a letter to Montoya expressing concerns that the "winning bid proposed including Gov. Chris Christie in the advertisements, while the lower cost proposal that was not selected did not."
Christie's part in the ads, which ran during his reelection last year, frustrated Democrats who felt the marketing strategy aided the governor politically.
MWW executives behind the campaign disputed the suggestion on Monday that their firm won the bid over the three other competing companies because of an agreement to feature Christie prominently in the ads. Although a spokesman said the possibility of featuring Christie was mentioned "very briefly" in a pitch meeting with officials, the idea was not mentioned in its 233-page proposal.
Josh Zeitz, a senior vice president with the company, said the decision to feature Christie in the ads was "arrived at after the contract was awarded, based on timing, availability, and federal expenditure rules."
Sigma, the firm that came in second place, acknowledged this week that executives discussed the idea of a Christie appearing in ads in their pitch meeting with the state, according to an article published Tuesday night by the Press. During the oral presentation, according to Sigma's president Shannon Morris, administration officials "inquired if we would be open to featuring the governor in the ads."
In his statement, Montoya said HUD expects "to issue our audit report expeditiously. We will have no further comment until the audit report is issued."
A spokesman for Pallone did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.