TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Democratic lawmakers skewered a Florida debris removal company and Republicans defended it Friday in a politically charged hearing over a major post-Superstorm Sandy contract that's become the most debated part of the Christie administration's reaction to the storm.
The Oct. 29 storm, the most destructive ever to hit New Jersey, caused an estimated $37 billion in damage and killed at least 40 people. Two days later, without taking bids, Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration had a deal in place with AshBritt Environmental that set prices for debris removal for local governments.
"On its face, it appears to me that the administration went out of its way to give a lucrative no-bid contract to a connected out-of-state firm at double the price," said state Sen. Barbara Buono, a Democrat from Metuchen and her party's front-runner for the gubernatorial nomination in this year's election.
Buono went on to question, sometimes testily, AshBritt founder and CEO Randal Perkins.
Perkins said the price was fair, lower than New Jersey's towns would have gotten if the state had accepted a contract negotiated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He also said his firm could not have afforded to pay New Jersey-based subcontractors if it had charged lower rates.
Buono complained that Perkins was not answering her questions directly.
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a Republican and Christie's close ally, complained that members of his party were not being called on enough. He interjected: "Are we having a campaign rally?"
With the deal, the Christie administration adopted the terms of a standing contract Connecticut had with AshBritt, a disaster cleanup company based in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Most of the costs to cities and towns are expected to be reimbursed by the federal government.
Fifty-one New Jersey towns signed on with AshBritt. Perkins said Friday the company has completed debris removal in 45 towns and is nearly done work in the remaining six.
Perkins objected to complaints that his company received a no-bid contract, maintaining that the contract went through the bidding process in Connecticut.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in an emailed statement that it and the Christie administration had consulted regarding the proposed use of the AshBritt Connecticut contract and agreed, under the post-storm emergency circumstances, the state could proceed with it. It said it's reviewing the contract, as is normal, and consults with the state regularly.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck, asked at the hearing about the timeline of the deal and the role of lobbyists in persuading the state to adopt the Connecticut deal. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Christie confidant, is a lobbyist for AshBritt.
Perkins said his firm did not talk with administration officials before Sandy made landfall, and AshBritt lawyer Jared Moskowitz said the cost of lobbyists comes out of company profits not what clients are charged.
"The state of New Jersey got the best contractor, a Corps of Engineer contractor, for a discounted price," Perkins insisted.
Republicans were kinder and gentler to AshBritt.
Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, a Republican from Westfield, asked about the ability of AshBritt to do the work, including how many firms in the nation could have mobilized as AshBritt did to get it done. He also wanted to know how much the company spent in New Jersey before receiving any payments.
Perkins said AshBritt spent more than $50 million before seeing any money coming in and only about a half-dozen companies could do what AshBritt did.
During questioning, Perkins told Buono: "It's been stated here that this is not a political event. But with all due respect, you're running for governor."
He later apologized, but not before being reminded by Weinberg that Christie also is running for governor.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak, who isn't a regular at committee hearings but was watching in the gallery, said: "Quote me. It's a political charade."
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