03/08/2013 07:42 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

New Jersey Governor's Race Overshadows Sandy Cleanup Hearing

Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Edison, N.J., asks a question of AshBritt Environmental CEO Randal Perkins, Friday, March 8, 2013, in T
Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Edison, N.J., asks a question of AshBritt Environmental CEO Randal Perkins, Friday, March 8, 2013, in Trenton, N.J., during a joint Senate-Assembly committee at the Statehouse. Buono,a Democrat running for New Jersey governor, clashed with CEO Perkins, whose debris-removal company is playing a major role in cleaning up New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. Buono says AshBritt Environmental is getting "exorbitant commissions" at the expense of storm victims. Perkins agreed that his firm charged more than some others may have. But he says it needed to do so to be able to afford to use local New Jersey subcontractors in the cleanup.(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

A New Jersey legislative hearing Friday related to Hurricane Sandy cleanup turned into a partisan slugfest, as Republicans accused Democrats of using it to boost the chances of their party's candidate against Gov. Chris Christie (R) in this year's gubernatorial election.

The hearing, held jointly by the state Assembly and Senate oversight committees, focused on a contract that Christie's administration granted to AshBritt Inc., a Florida-based disaster cleanup firm. The contract was granted without competitive bidding and was based on a preexisting cleanup contract the firm had with Connecticut, a process allowed under New Jersey's emergency bidding rules. Reporting by the Newark-based Star-Ledger has indicated that other companies might have charged less.

The paper also wrote that former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), AshBritt's lobbyist and a Christie ally, had contacted the New Jersey governor about the company. Christie has defended the contract.

On Friday, AshBritt CEO Randal Perkins testified in defense of his company's actions and pricing structure, saying that Jersey Shore towns serviced by AshBritt were cleaned up faster than similar towns in New York, which did not use the company. He also said that the company had reached out before the storm to states that lacked cleanup arrangements like New Jersey and that Barbour did not talk to New Jersey officials until after Sandy hit.

Perkins found himself under fire from Democrats, led by state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen), the party's presumptive nominee for governor. Buono said the state had put federal funds at risk by using a no-bid contract. Her questioning was challenged by Republicans and by Perkins.

"With all due respect, you are running for governor," Perkins responded to a series of Buono's questions.

"That is inappropriate," Buono shot back. "That is a disservice to the people who elected me."

At the end of the hearing, Perkins said his line about Buono running for governor "was uncalled for" and asked to retract the comment.

State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Middletown), a close Christie ally, similarly accused the Democrat during her first round of questioning. Buono, the Senate oversight committee's vice chairwoman, was allowed several rounds of questioning to the dismay of GOP lawmakers.

"Is this a campaign rally or a hearing of the Senate and Assembly"" Kyrillos asked. "My god, Senator.”

Republicans also accused Democrats of being willing to delay cleanup to allow for a long bidding process. But Buono and other Democrats defended the hearing as a fact-finding mission designed to protect taxpayer dollars.

Perkins insisted that his company's contract had been approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and therefore federal funds were not at risk. A Star-Ledger reporter tweeted during the hearing that FEMA told a different story.

Besides attacking Buono, Republicans used the forum to defend Christie and his response to the storm.

"The public is grateful to this governor," Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) said. "This hearing is out of bounds, and the public is satisfied by the actions by this governor."



Hurricane Sandy