Bryant charges said to be near

A probe of other N.J. legislators is expanding.

Posted: March 28, 2007

TRENTON - As federal authorities continue to expand their investigation into Statehouse budget practices, serving subpoenas on three North Jersey legislators this week, the probe that started it all - into State Sen. Wayne Bryant - appears to be coming to an end.

Bryant, a Camden County Democrat who until recently was among the most powerful lawmakers in the state, could be indicted by a federal grand jury as early as tomorrow, sources familiar with the investigation said. It was unclear what charges Bryant is expected to face.

Bryant's lawyer, Carl Poplar, did not return calls for comment, and Bryant did not respond to messages left at his home and district offices yesterday afternoon. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie declined comment.

News of the case's imminent closure comes six months after the federal probe into Bryant became public.

In September, a federal monitor appointed by Christie to root out abuse at the scandal-ridden University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey concluded that Bryant's $38,000-a-year job as "program support coordinator" at the school - a position that helped boost his public pension - was a sham. What Bryant was really paid to do, the monitor maintained, was use his influence as chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee to steer millions in state grants to the school.

Bryant, who has denied the allegations, stepped down from his budget post not long afterward. State and federal investigators have been swarming ever since, seeking documents from a number of organizations and institutions - including Rutgers University, UMDNJ and the Camden Redevelopment Agency - that employed Bryant or his law firm.

Amid the probe, the 59-year-old veteran legislator recently announced that he would not seek reelection later this year.

Meanwhile, investigators have widened their scope, and are now examining whether any lawmakers may have personally - and illegally - benefited from grants traditionally slipped into the state budget at the last minute, often behind closed doors.

Christie's office last month bombarded the Statehouse with subpoenas in his probe of so-called Christmas tree grants, demanding documents from the Democratic and Republican leadership, main legislative offices, and the governor's office. And on Monday morning, State Assemblyman Bryan Stack (D., Hudson), State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union) and State Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D., Bergen) all received subpoenas requesting records tied to grants that went to organizations that employ them or their relatives, spokesmen for the legislators confirmed.

The latest subpoenas are especially noteworthy because they represent the first time individual legislators have been singled out by federal investigators.

Before this week, the only lawmaker to have his name publicly tied to the probe was Bryant.

Joseph Marbach, a political science professor and acting dean of the College of Arts and Science at Seton Hall University, said the fact that the case has branched out was "the worst-case scenario as far as the Legislature is concerned."

Where past probes have remained focused on individuals, Marbach said, this one has turned into "a systematic investigation of the entire Legislature. . . . This really is breaking new ground."

And challenging age-old traditions in Trenton.

"You have veteran lawmakers who are understandably concerned," said David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University. "What used to pass for acceptable political practice may actually be illegal."

Investigators have demanded documents from Coniglio relating to grants, dating to January 2004, for the Hackensack University Medical Center. The senator had a plumbing contract with the center paying him at least $5,000 a month from May 2004 to early 2006, his chief of staff, Marc Schrieks, confirmed.

According to state budget documents, the medical center received more than $1 million in special state grants during that period.

"We're complying and we're moving forward in giving all the information we can to the authorities," Schrieks said. "Anything further, I can't comment on."

Scutari's office was subpoenaed for records dating to January 2004 and tied to grants that went to Community Access Unlimited, spokesman Michael Biondi confirmed. The Elizabeth nonprofit, which provides services to the disabled, employs Scutari's wife and has received at least $75,000 in grant money in the period being examined, according to state budget documents.

"We did receive a subpoena yesterday, and we are in the process of complying fully with the Justice Department's request," Biondi said yesterday.

The subpoena served on Stack demands documents relating to grants for Union City Day Care, which is headed by his estranged wife, Katia. The day-care center received at least $200,000 in last-minute state assistance over the last few years, according to budget documents.

A spokesman for Stack, who also is mayor of Union City, said the assemblyman was fully cooperating. But spokesman Joseph Lauro, who said the day care had also received a subpoena, dismissed the notion that Stack's wife benefited from the grant. The state money did not in any way contribute to her salary, said Lauro.

"Those grant dollars went for capital projects at a city-run day-care center and a city park, and the only people who benefited are families that use the day-care and people who use the park," Lauro said.

Legislative leaders, too, have defended many of the grants, saying that most go to worthwhile causes. But with the cloud of a federal investigation hanging over the Statehouse, they have vowed to reform the way the grants are doled out.

Starting with the budget season currently under way, they say, lawmakers will have to submit their requests for funding in writing ahead of time, and note any potential conflicts of interest. The idea is to have greater transparency so the public can scrutinize any additions to the budget before the spending plan becomes law.


Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.

 

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