Several Democrats have called for implementing a number of safeguards to ensure the federal Hurricane Sandy relief aid coming to New Jersey is spent properly. One of those Democrats is Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, chairman of the Budget Committee, who told NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that integrity monitors would be able to oversee the process and deter abuse. He expressed his concern with what he calls a no-bid contract with Florida-based disaster recovery company AshBritt and his frustration with the state treasurer over him not answering legislators’ questions.
Prieto said AshBritt is a company in business to make money. “My concern has been the way the process has gone and that we have not gotten the questions answered that we have. We have a lot of questions. They actually piggybacked off a contract from 2008 in Connecticut and that actually makes it a no-bid contract. And normally no-bid contracts are more difficult, the scrutiny is greater with them,” he said. “We want to make sure that this money is spent wisely, it’s spent here and that it would trickle back into New Jersey.”
There are some bills in front of the Assembly to address the Sandy relief aid. One of the bills calls for integrity monitors to oversee the process. Prieto explained that the treasurer would have the ability to place them and waive their services, but he would have to give written notice of a waiver to the Senate president and the Assembly speaker explaining why they would not be needed. He said the monitors would be beneficial.
“History has shown that integrity monitors are very, very important because not only do they find waste and fraud in the process, they actually deter people from trying to get by and overcharging because they know that they’re being watched,” Prieto said. “So I think that’s a very important component of this process.”
Prieto said he was unhappy that Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff did not attend a meeting to answer questions legislators had about the Sandy relief aid. It wasn’t the first time Sidamon-Eristoff was a no-show either. Prieto said it was the fourth time he failed to address legislators on three different topics — the state budget, privatizing the lottery and Sandy rebuilding, which he called “issue number one for the state of New Jersey.”
While Prieto said New Jersey must rebuild in a timely manner, he added “we have to be sure to see how this money’s going to be distributed. We don’t know exactly what the allocation for New Jersey’s going to be. Is it going to need any legislative bills to be able to move some of this? Is it gonna have joint oversight? We don’t know. So these are questions that we wanted to pose to the treasurer, so I was very unhappy that he did not come before us.”
Prieto said he was not given a reason for the treasurer’s absence and only learned that he would not be attending an hour before the meeting began. “I just think it was sort of disrespectful not only to the committee but to the residents of the state of New Jersey who deserve an answer,” he said. “We’re an equal branch of government. We need to be part of this process to make sure that things are being done properly and that’s why we’re elected to represent the residents of the state of New Jersey and I think we should be doing our job by asking these questions, whether they’re tough questions or just basic questions.”
The issue of internet gambling is before the courts today. Prieto said he hopes allowing internet gambling will spur growth in Atlantic City, which the state depends on as a source of revenue.
“We are in the 21st century. This is part of life where we are. So the internet is here with us and we need to tap into that industry from that angle,” Prieto said.