By Mark Lagerkvist | Watchdog.org
Chris Christie’s expense account tells a story of appetite and ambition, one that pits government waste against the New Jersey governor’s waistline.
Christie spent $360,000 from his state allowance during his five years in office. More than 80 percent of that money, or $300,000, was used to buy food, alcohol and desserts, according to a New Jersey Watchdog analysis of records released by the governor’s office.
In addition to his $175,000 a year salary, the governor receives $95,000 a year in expense advances, paid quarterly by the state. In the state budget, it is listed as “an allowance of funds not otherwise appropriated and used for official receptions on behalf of the state, the operation of an official residence, for other expenses.”
While Christie returns surplus funds to the state each year, Treasury officials say he does not submit receipts or accounting for the public monies he spends. The governor’s ledger, obtained from Christie under the Open Public Records Act, offers a rare, if partial glimpse of a controversial expense account shrouded in secrecy.
Christie’s most notable spending spree occurred during the 2010 and 2011 NFL football seasons at MetLife Stadium, where the New York’s Giants and Jets play their home games. New Jersey’s governor traditionally enjoys free use of luxury boxes for games and other events at the government-owned venue, but food and beverages cost extra.
On 58 occasions, Christie used a debit card to pay a total of $82,594 to Delaware North Sportservice, which operates the concessions at MetLife. The governor’s office did not provide any receipts, business reasons or names of individuals entertained, but defended the expense.
“The official nature and business purpose of the event remains the case regardless of whether the event is at the State House, Drumthwacket or a sporting venue,” said Christie’s press secretary Kevin Roberts in a prepared statement.
To avoid a potential scandal that could embarrass their rising political star, the New Jersey Republican State Committee reimbursed the Treasury in March 2012 for Christie’s purchases from “DNS Sports.” Since then, the governor has refrained from using his expense account at MetLife and other sports venues.
Meanwhile, Christie found other ways to enjoy the allowance.
The governor used it to buy $102,495 worth of groceries and alcoholic beverages from retail stores. It’s not clear from records whether the goods stocked the pantries and filled the refrigerators at Drumthwacket, the governor’s official mansion in Princeton, or the Mendham house where Christie and his family live. The store addresses were not disclosed.
Christie did most of his serious food shopping at Wegmans Food Markets, where he spent $76,373 during 53 shopping runs. He patronized ShopRite supermarkets 51 times for $11,971 in purchases – plus another $6,536 in seven visits to ShopRite’s liquor stores.
Those grocery bills dropped dramatically in early 2013, shortly after Barbara Walters asked on network television whether Christie was too overweight to be president.
“There are people who say that couldn’t be president because you’re so heavy,” said Walters in an ABC special that aired in December 2012. “What do you say to that?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Christie shot back. “I mean, that’s ridiculous.”
Two months later, the governor underwent Lap-Band surgery in an attempt to lose weight. Nearly two years after the operation to restrict the size of his stomach, Christie boasted he had shed 85 pounds.
It also shrank Christie’s supermarket bills.
The governor bought $64,687 in groceries during the 38 months leading up to the surgery. That tab shrank to $31,236 for the 26 months after the operation.
On top of those food bills, Christie spent another $109,133 to hire caterers for official state receptions and special events – expenses more consistent with the stated purpose of the allowance. His favorite vendor was Jacques Exclusive Caterers of Middletown, which received $74,161 worth of business from the governor.
Other payments included $35,027 for tents and rental equipment, $10,786 for printing and office supplies and $4,338 for candy, cookies and confections.
The records released by the governor’s office did not include receipts or descriptions of what was purchased. Such secrecy would change under a bill introduced by Assemblymen Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic.
“New Jersey taxpayers have every right to know where their hard-earned money goes,” said Mazzeo. “Any governor who makes a responsible and appropriate use of this expense account should have no objection to complying with what’s required under this bill.”
If enacted, A-4424 would require the governor to disclose expenses with receipts in an annual report to be posted on the State Ethics Commission web site.
“There is a growing sense of cynicism in politics today and it is imperative for those of us in public office to overcome that cynicism by ensuring a more transparent and accountable system,” added Singleton.
As Christie’s out-of-state travel increased while he pursued his political ambitions, the governor’s state allowance expenditures decreased. During those political journeys, many of the costs have been picked by the state GOP, the Republican Governors Association and his PAC, Leadership Matters for America.
In 2010, the governor spent all but $2,716 of his state expense allowance during his first year in office. The annual surpluses grew to $9,882 in 2011, $21,225 in 2012, $47,472 in 2013 and $30,377 last year. Christie returned those monies to the Treasury, according to records he provided.
However, the rising costs of protecting the governor on his sojourns away from New Jersey dwarfed any decreases in allowance expenditures by Christie.
The travel costs for the state police’s Executive Protection Unit reached $492,420 in 2014. It is 22 times more than the $21,704 spent in 2009, former Gov. Jon Corzine’s last year in office.
During Christie’s first five years as governor, EPU travel costs totaled nearly $1.2 million.
The governor’s office has not responded to New Jersey Watchdog’s questions about the expenses. Instead, Roberts pointed to his previous statement: “These are the same standards and practices that every other former governor followed when it comes to their security detail.”
Over the past five years, $975,000 of those security costs were charged to American Express credit cards issued to the governor’s office. Christie has flatly refused to release the monthly statements, claiming details of past expenditures could jeopardize his safety in the future.
New Jersey Watchdog is suing Christie in Mercer County Superior Court to force the governor to release the Amex records of EPU charges.