By Kim Glovas and Cleve Bryan

TRENTON, N.J. (CBS) — A federal audit is being conducted into whether New Jersey governor Chris Christie improperly spent Superstorm Sandy relief money on tourism ads featuring his family — while Christie was in the midst of a reëlection campaign.

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US Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) says a federal investigation by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is underway.  Pallone says there is the “appearance of impropriety” because two companies bid for the “Stronger than the Storm” tourism ads and a higher bidder won the campaign.

“There were two firms that produced it,” Pallone says, “and the one that was the lowest bidder was about two million dollars less.  But they wouldn’t put him and his family in the ads, and so he chose the more expensive bid.”

Pallone first raised questions about the ads last August.

He said in a letter to HUD’s inspector general that it was inappropriate for taxpayer dollars earmarked for the state’s recovery to benefit a political campaign.

The $4.7 million spent on the ads was part of a $25-million package for tourism promotion after the storm.

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The HUD inspector-general conducted a basic review last year at Pallone’s urging. Pallone says the office found enough evidence to justify a full audit.

Pallone tells CBS 3 that his timing for releasing this information about the new investigation has nothing to do with trying to pile on Governor Christie’s bridge scandal woes (See Related Story). He says he started inquiring about this back in August, and then just learned a few days ago about the full investigation from HUD.

Christie spokesman Colin Reed says the federal government approved the campaign and that the administration expects a review will find it was effective.

The firm behind the “Stronger than the Storm” campaign also responded today.  MWW released a statement, which reads:

“Given widely inaccurate reporting on Stronger than the Storm, we welcome the Inspector General’s report. It will show that MWW’s proposal included no mention or suggestion of using the governor in the paid advertising campaign. The decision to include the governor was arrived at after the contract was awarded, based on timing, availability and federal expenditure rules. Assertions to the contrary are simply incorrect. The IG’s audit will also show that MWW’s final proposal came in at $22.255 million, while the runner-up’s proposal was $23.725 million. That means MWW came in at the lower overall bid by $1.47 million and offered the lowest hourly rates of all bidders. STTS was one of the most successful campaigns in the history of New Jersey and had a material impact on the economic recovery of the Jersey Shore.”

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