Chris Christie’s beloved Dallas Cowboys aren’t in the Super Bowl this weekend, so the New Jersey governor won’t be hanging out with Jerry Jones or answering questions about gifts he has accepted from the Cowboys owner. Instead, Christie is headed across the Atlantic, thanks to another big gift: a three-day trip to the U.K. funded by a group that counts among its top donors companies that have business with Christie's adminstration.
The group sponsoring Christie’s journey is Choose New Jersey, which is part of an organization led by Christie’s lieutenant governor and which recently hired one of the governor’s closest political advisers, Michele Brown, as its CEO. According to its website, Choose New Jersey is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that “encourage[s] and nurture[s] economic growth” in the state. But because the group is bankrolled by corporations doing business with the Christie administration -- and Republican Party activists have been touting the U.K. trip as a way to shore up Christie’s foreign-policy credentials ahead of a possible presidential run -- ethics watchdogs are wary.
“Choose New Jersey is supposed to allow corporate and union interests with a stake in New Jersey to promote the state,” said Lawrence M. Noble, a senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “Using it to pay for these international trips for the governor raises questions about whether they are more focused on promoting the governor than the interests of those doing business with the state.”
Neither Christie’s office nor Choose New Jersey, which has financed Christie’s other international trips, responded to International Business Times' requests for comment.
Choose New Jersey board members include New Jersey American Water -- a subsidiary of American Water Works Co. Inc., which obtained $31.5 million in state financing to create a floodwall for a water-treatment plant.
Other board members include units of Ferring Pharmaceuticals Inc., Novartis AG, Prudential Financial Inc. and the Wakefern Food Corp. -- all of which have benefited from millions of dollars worth of state subsidies through the Christie-controlled New Jersey Economic Development Authority, or NJEDA. Another board member, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications Inc., received a $5.48 million NJEDA grant in 2013 after Christie’s Board of Public Utilities approved a deal that critics say allows the company to renege on a prior commitment to expand broadband service in New Jersey. Christie’s utilities commission also approved a rate increase proposed by Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., another Choose New Jersey board member. Meanwhile, Novartis, Prudential, PSEG and Verizon have all donated to the Republican Governors Association, which backed both of Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns.
IBTimes requested comment from the Choose New Jersey board members that conduct business with New Jersey. Verizon responded with a statement from spokesperson Lee Gierczynski saying: “Our modest investment in Choose New Jersey has helped the organization successfully carry out its mission to the benefit of New Jersey’s citizens." Gierczynski added that it is “irresponsible for anyone to suggest a connection” between the donations to the group funding Christie’s trip and the company’s dealings with the Christie administration.
A spokesperson for New Jersey American Water said the company is "proud to support the efforts of the state to attract new business and more importantly jobs to New Jersey" and asserted that "Choose New Jersey plays a pivotal role in promoting NJ as great place to live work and do business both nationally and internationally."
Wakefern Foods issued a statement saying its donations to Choose New Jersey are "in keeping with our goal of seeing that our state remains a vibrant place to live and do business." The company added that "any suggestion that there is some relationship between Choose New Jersey membership and a business’ ability to qualify for economic development incentives is fallacious and defamatory.”
They include the Prudential Center, which was bolstered by the Christie administration’s decision last month to shutter a publicly owned arena that was its primary competitor. Prudential Center co-owner Joshua Harris also benefited from an $82 million NJEDA tax credit for the Philadelphia 76ers. Harris is the basketball team’s managing owner.
Revelations about the financing of Christie’s visit to Britain are the latest in a series of disclosures spotlighting the New Jersey governor’s political and fundraising relationships with corporations that do business with his administration.
Last year, IBTimes reported financial firms whose executives made donations to Christie-affiliated political groups had received contracts to manage New Jersey pension money. The Guardian and IBTimes reported Christie had raised prodigious amounts of cash for the Republican Governors Association, which he chaired at the time, from state contractors and recipients of state subsidies. That includes firms hired by the state to rebuild New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy.
Christie is expected to arrive in Britain Sunday. He is scheduled to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others.
This story was updated to include comments from New Jersey American Water and Wakefern Foods.