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GOP N.J. governor candidate's expenses probed

The Republican candidate for New Jersey governor regularly spent beyond federal guidelines on business travel while U.S. attorney, records show.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Republican candidate for New Jersey governor, who has campaigned on a platform of ethical integrity and cutting government waste, regularly spent beyond federal guidelines on business travel while U.S. attorney, records show.

The newly released travel records show that Chris Christie occasionally billed taxpayers more than $400 a night for stays in luxury hotels and exceeded the government's hotel allowance on 14 of 16 business trips he took in 2008.

"Generally, U.S. attorneys, assistant U.S. attorneys and all federal staff stay within the government rate," said Justice Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz. "The government rate is not a suggestion, it's a guideline."

Christie said he stayed in more expensive hotels only when cheaper ones weren't available.

"We always went for government rates first," he said. "I don't think there were a lot of stays in five-star hotels over seven years."

The travel records date to when he was sworn in as U.S. attorney in 2002. They were obtained this week by the campaign of Christie's Democratic opponent, Gov. Jon Corzine, under the Freedom of Information Act.

The AP has sought the same records, but the request was made later than the one by the governor's office and hasn't been fulfilled.

The limits are updated regularly to reflect inflation, seasonal price jumps and other economic realities of business travel, Schwartz said. Federal employees who exceed the allowance are required to explain why, though the justification merely requires an extra layer of approval that is routinely granted.

On trips in 2007 and 2008, his top deputy, Michele Brown, also exceeded the guidelines after Christie approved her requests for rooms in the same five-star hotels where he was booked.

‘He chose to ignore the rules’
The vouchers show Christie and Brown stayed at the NineZero Hotel in Boston on Oct. 16, 2007 and each billed taxpayers $449 plus taxes and fees for their rooms, more than double the government allowance for a Boston hotel room at the time, according to a General Services Administration travel reimbursement table.

A liberal ethics group called Christie's travel history "astonishing," noting a stay at the Four Seasons in Washington, one of the city's best hotels.

"I'm sure he knew better, and he chose to ignore the rules," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "There is never a situation where the only available hotel in Washington is the Four Seasons. If you stay there, you've chosen luxury and you've chosen to ignore the rules."

The ethics group has also filed a complaint alleging that Christie violated federal law by discussing a possible run for governor while he was U.S. attorney, but federal officials declined to investigate because Christie is no longer a federal employee.

The former federal prosecutor submitted a waiver for the room in Boston, as required. In it, he requested additional lodging expenses because there were no rooms available at the $203 per night government rate "due to a high demand for rooms."

Christie made a mortgage loan to Brown five days after they returned from Boston, on Oct. 22, 2007. He failed to report the loan on federal ethics forms and on his 2007 federal income tax returns, omissions he later described as a mistake. Brown has since resigned and joined a private law firm.

Christie is locked in a tight race against Corzine, an unpopular governor bidding for a second term, and independent Chris Daggett. Christie has campaigned on his record of putting corrupt politicians in jail.

23 trips exceeded allowance
Records turned over so far show Christie exceeded the government lodging allowance on 23 of 30 business trips taken between 2004 and 2008. In some cases, his travel vouchers were approved first by Brown, then certified by a third person. Christie, who was Brown's supervisor, signed off on her travel, either in advance or when she submitted vouchers, the records show. The vouchers were all certified by a third party.

Christie's hotel tab exceeded $400 per night on four trips. A night at the Four Seasons in Washington in October 2008 cost taxpayers $475; five nights in London were $401 each for Christie and Brown, the records show.

The federal government policy manual states that employees "must exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on a personal basis." The guideline says the agency will not pay for "luxury accommodations" or unjustified services.

Democrats were quick to condemn the travel expenses.

"It is outrageous that Mr. Christie made taxpayers foot the bill for his excessive and luxurious travel accommodations around the United States and to foreign countries, while his only job responsibilities were in New Jersey," said Corzine campaign spokesman Sean Darcy.

Corzine, a wealthy former Wall Street CEO, does not take a salary for being governor and pays for all his own travel, Darcy said.