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NJ Spotlight Reporter: No Evidence Politics Was Involved in Distribution of Sandy Funds

3-5-14

A new report from WNYC/NJ Spotlight says that it appears that Hoboken’s application for energy assistance after Hurricane Sandy was handled differently than others. WNYC/NJ Spotlight Reporter Scott Gurian told NJTV News Managing Editor Mike Schneider that he did not find clear evidence that politics was involved in how the state distributed the funds.

Gurian said that for his research, he looked at the specific energy allocation initiative which is part of the hazard mitigation program and those are funds not for repair of Sandy damage but for future mitigations to protect against future storms.

There was $25 million in the pot that cities and towns, such as Hoboken, applied for and Gurian obtained a copy of the internal scoring sheets that state officials used to rank the applicants. He said that a variety of different factors were looked at and he was able to see the number of points that were assigned in each category.

Using the state’s ranking scores and criteria, Gurian was able to do his own scoring of Hoboken and said they should have received another $700,000, totaling $840,000, when the state only gave Hoboken $140,000.

“Hoboken was our entry point into this story because of Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations and initially as we looked at the scores. It looked like that was where the most number of anomalies were, but the problems from our analysis seem to extend far beyond Hoboken to other cities and towns as well. It worked both ways, so places like Atlantic City and Belmar, which received substantial damage, didn’t receive any funding at all and then there were some places like Nutley and Morristown that received hundreds of thousands of dollars. The grants in many of these cases seemed out of proportion to the damage they received,” Gurian said.

Hoboken was not the only city that asked for more money. Brick Township and Elizabeth asked for more as well, Gurian said.

“We don’t have clear evidence that politics was involved. Certainly there was a lot of bureaucracy and confusion with this program from everyone I spoke to. Confusion on both ends with the rules that the state gave to these municipalities and the counties as far as how to submit applications for this grant program. Confusion on the state side with the working group that was created from several state agency to rank and score these applications,” said Gurian.

Gurian said that there were initial changes made after the numbers were released in October. He said that none of the money has been handed out yet. Adjustments were made in December and about 24 municipalities out of 400 applicants received revised letters, Gurian said.

“Since then the state has asked the municipalities to send detailed spending plans. The state’s response now that we are coming forward with this information is that it’s still in that phase where they are adjusting a lot of things, it’s still up in the air. The indication that I’ve gotten from my investigations seem to be that the process is much further along than the state is willing to admit at this point,” said Gurian.

The Christie administration has criticized Gurian’s report. Larry Ragonese of the Department of Environmental Protection says Gurian’s analysis is premature and based on incomplete data and preliminary figures. Ragonese said the state is still figuring out what funds will be awarded to whom. He expects that to happen next month and calls any suggestion of bias ridiculous.