By Marina Lopes
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hoping to win an advertising campaign for the Jersey Shore after Superstorm Sandy, Shannon Morris cut her bid 20 percent and hired teammates who ran the New Orleans tourism campaign after Hurricane Katrina.
She failed, however, to cast Governor Chris Christie himself to star in the proposed commercials - a move that may have helped her higher-priced rival win the business.
Her firm's loss has now triggered a federal investigation of Christie's possible misuse of Sandy relief funds.
"We were left scratching our heads as to why they would give this bid to an agency at double the price," Morris, president of Sigma Group of Oradell, New Jersey, told Reuters on Monday.
Sigma Group's $2.5 million bid lost out to a $4.7 million bid by MWW of East Rutherford, New Jersey, for a campaign that featured Christie and his family proclaiming the state is "stronger than the storm."
The winning campaign, which aired last spring, featured Christie, a likely 2016 Republican presidential contender, during a re-election year that his advisers hoped would be so successful it would propel him toward the White House.
While well-received at the time, the ad campaign has become a headache for Christie. Already enmeshed in a scandal over snarled traffic at the George Washington Bridge, Christie is being audited by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine if Sandy funds were misappropriated to put him in the spotlight during an election year, an agency spokesman said.
In a statement on Monday, Christie's spokesman noted the HUD secretary had praised the ad and that a poll found most New Jersey residents thought it was appropriate to include the governor in the campaign.
Christie spokesman Colin Reed downplayed the newest investigation, which comes in wake of another federal probe of the bridge tie-up, headed by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
"Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly," Reed said.
He called the ad campaign a success that helped the storm-battered state begin to recover from the devastation of the October 2012 natural disaster.
"We're confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history," Reed said.
While Morris is glad to see New Jersey thriving again, she said the Christie administration's decision to award the contract to the highest bidder still rankles her.
"We were all rooting for the state of New Jersey," Morris said. "It wasn't until I saw the price discrepancy that I became more angry than disappointed."
(Reporting by Marina Lopes; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Dan Grebler)