WASHINGTON –Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) sharply criticized New Jersey state officials' administration of superstorm Sandy relief programs Wednesday morning, blaming Trenton, not Washington, for delays in housing aid and hammering a controversial contractor quietly fired by the Christie administration.
Menendez did not mention Gov. Christie, a Republican, by name, but in a hearing at which two Democratic senators and no Republicans attended, it was clear that he was pushing back against Christie's claims that the federal government is to blame for a sluggish recovery from the 2012 storm.
"Some have chosen to point the blame at the federal government, but I say that it is time to stop finger pointing and get the job done," Menendez said in an opening statement.
Earlier, he said that immediately after the storm, "I confess that I thought it was a good idea to give states the flexibility and discretion that seemed reasonable, assuming we would all rise to the occasion. Now, frankly, I question the wisdom of that assumption."
Menendez had his most sharp words for former state contractor HGI, hired to help oversee the recovery program. He also blamed the state for taking too long to begin the environmental reviews cited by Christie as a major choke point, and suggested that Christie spend less on advertising as a new round of federal funding comes to New Jersey.
Pointing to HGI, fired after what Menendez called "months of gross mismanagement," he said, "12 percent of the way through the contract the contractor had burned 75 percent of its funding, with an abysmal performance."
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is reviewing the HGI contract, said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. The review is expected to be completed within weeks, he said.
"It would be mind-boggling that the company could walk away, get 75 percent of its contract … mess it up so badly that it hurt people and then at the end of the day we just cancel the contract and it just goes good bye – that cannot be the case," Menendez said. "I can assure you that will not be the case."
Donovan also said the environmental reviews Christie has criticized typically take only two weeks and, in more complex cases, six weeks.
Christie has blasted federal red-tape, and particularly the environmental reviews, for slowing Sandy recovery programs, calling them "incredibly frustrating."
Menendez, lofting leading questions at Donovan, added that the environmental oversight could be done concurrently with other state reviews – cutting down the wait time for people seeking aid – but that state officials have instead waited to conduct the environmental checks after all other steps in the application process have been completed.
"Wouldn't it be a better idea … to have the environmental reviews as early a possible in the process?" Menendez asked.
Donovan said that if a review is done and an applicant is ultimately found ineligible on other grounds, the cost of the environmental reviews would come out of the state's limited budget for administering its recovery programs. That would effectively cost the state money for a review of an ineligible applicant.
"Maybe we shouldn't do any more advertising," so that more money is available for administrative costs, Menendez said.
Menendez and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) were the only senators to attend the morning portion of the hearing, which broke for votes shortly before 11 a.m. and will resume later Wednesday morning.
As the hearing began, the Christie administration announced plans to speed aid delivered through the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program (RREM), the state's largest housing recovery program and the subject of much of Menendez's ire.
The change, according to the state Department of Community Affairs, eliminates a requirement that forced homeowners to provide proof of construction costs before requesting payments from the relief fund. Now, homeowners approved for aid will be able to request advance payment for up to half of their RREM grant.
The change will help people already approved for aid, but may not help those still waiting for approval.