Dustin Racioppi, NorthJersey.com
Television and radio ads featuring Governor Christie promoting a drug addiction hotline and website are partially paid for with money intended to increase the number of low-income women and children who are eligible for nutrition counseling, breastfeeding education and immunization screening, according to documents obtained by The Record.
That federally funded program, the state's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, is more commonly referred to as WIC. It also provides low-income families with resources to buy certain foods and offers health care support.
When The Record and NorthJersey.com requested, through the Open Public Records Act, a copy of the contract the state is using to fund the drug hotline and website advertising, Christie's office provided a copy of the contract for the WIC promotion, a $1.5 million deal in 2014 with marketing agency Princeton Partners.
The goal of the WIC campaign, according to the state's request for proposal, was "to increase the total number of eligible pregnant and postpartum women (breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding), infants and children enrolled statewide with NJ WIC Services."
When Christie launched the television and radio ads last month to promote the addiction website and hotline, known as "Reach NJ," his office said it was being paid for by an existing public announcement contract held by the state, and not a new cost to the general budget. But the office did not specify which contract it was referring to and declined to say how much the new ads cost.
The governor's office and the Department of Health declined to answer questions in repeated requests for details about the contract, instead referring to the contract documents. Jeff Chesebro, president of Princeton Partners, which produced the Reach NJ ads, also did not respond to requests for information.
After the story was published Monday on NorthJersey.com, Christie's office responded that the opioid campaign "has absolutely no connection" to the WIC program, despite the contract documents the administration provided. The office stressed that no money for the WIC program itself was being used for the opioid campaign. It did not specify how the ad campaign was being paid for, only that it was using "existing funds in the state budget."
State Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, called for an accounting. “The administration has to explain exactly how the state is paying for the addiction ad campaign, how much money has already been steered to it and how much they are planning to spend," Gill said in a statement. "Refusing to provide this information is unacceptable.”
The anti-addiction ads have come under some scrutiny because they feature Christie, whose job approval rating is at a historic low, and critics view the commercials and his final-year quest to fight drug abuse as an effort to improve his image before leaving office. The state has solicited a new round of proposals from contractors to develop another round of ads. Although the state has put a $1 million price tag on the new advertisements, bid documents call it a sample campaign, "which should not be confused with the overall program budget, which is substantial."
Christie's office has declined to say whether the new ads will feature the governor, who has been trailed by a small camera crew at his recent public appearances for drug-related events.
"We are still in the process of further developing this campaign, and as we progress we will be able to more accurately share any details we can on the RFP and any related expenditures," spokesman Brian Murray said in an email, using the shorthand for "request for proposal."
Christie came under fire several years ago when he used federal money to pay for an ad campaign promoting the state after Superstorm Sandy. Marketing of the "stronger than the storm" ads, which included Christie and his family, was awarded to a firm for $2 million more than the next bidder, and the commercials were rolled out in the months leading up to his re-election. Critics questioned whether the contract was awarded to the firm, MWW of East Rutherford, because the ads would include Christie. A federal audit found "nothing improper" about the content of the commercials, but said the state did not fully comply with federal procurement rules.
There is also a question of what other financial source is being used for the current Reach NJ ads. The state budgeted $2.6 million for the campaign, according to Politico New Jersey, $1 million more than the WIC contract the governor's office cited as the one it’s using to pay for the ads.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, chairwoman of the Assembly Human Services Committee, issued a statement after the story was published calling for a "full accounting" of how the ad campaign has been, and will be, funded.
"There’s no denying that the opioid crisis deserves the state’s attention, but if this report holds true, robbing Peter to pay Paul when our poverty rate is at a 50-year high seems like a questionable decision at best," said Huttle, D-Englewood. "I think this definitely deserves a detailed explanation from the administration as to how this ad campaign is being funded and what impact, if any, it is having on promoting the Women, Infants and Children program, which has seen a decline in enrollment despite the obvious need for these services."
The 30-second Reach NJ ads featuring Christie are basic. Against the backdrop of a person sitting in a darkened hallway, a graphic citing an opioid death rate statistic cuts to Christie introducing the hotline and website. The ads were launched after Christie's State of the State address, in which he dedicated his final year in office to combating the state's opioid crisis. The commercials have run on the radio and on television stations in the New York and Philadelphia markets.
By contrast, the WIC advertisements were more varied, both visually and in terms of the platforms on which they would appear, according to the Princeton Partners proposal. There was a 30-second jingle targeted for Pandora Internet radio, posters, tri-fold brochures and Internet banners with different foods — apples, peas, spaghetti and sunny-side-up eggs — shaped into hearts, with the tagline "Feed your children a better future" and the state website address. The address now redirects to an error page, "because it does not exist, has been moved, or the server has been instructed not to let you view it."
Another ad, a poster, features an image of a young child holding a stethoscope to a pregnant woman's stomach. In addition to radio and Web pages, the ads were planned to appear on public transportation in select counties.
It appears that the WIC advertising campaign ran at least in 2014, according to the Health Department's 2016 strategic plan for the program. One of the banner ads in the style of those from the contract proposal is also featured on the Health Department's WIC page online.
On Monday, after the story was posted online, the Department of Health said in an email that it worked with Princeton Partners between June and November 2014 on a $149,810 WIC campaign using federal money. The campaign included English and Spanish ads on NJ Transit platforms, trains and buses, a 30-second Internet radio spot, Internet advertising and posters and brochures, spokeswoman Donna Leusner said.
Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, said in an email Monday afternoon that the Health Department worked with Princeton Partners for other public awareness campaigns, including ones concerning lead and the Zika virus.
"The Princeton Partners contract remained active, which is why it was enlisted for the opioid campaign using existing funds in the state budget in connection with [the] governor's declaration that opioid addiction was a public health crisis," Murray said.
It isn't apparent that the state achieved its goal of increasing enrollment. In 2013, the year before the ad campaign was to launch, local WIC agencies served 290,150 women or children, according to the Health Department. In 2015, the latest year for which data are readily available from the state, WIC served 281,658 women or children, a decline of 3 percent.
Meanwhile, enrollment in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and eligibility for free or reduced school meals have increased statewide between 2011 and 2015, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey. Those social service programs do not directly link to the WIC program, but "it's counterintuitive that WIC would drop for that period," President and Chief Executive Officer Cecilia Zalkind said.
"It seems to me that we're not reaching everyone," she said.