A budget without Bryant: Trenton feels his absence

Posted: March 29, 2007

TRENTON - This is where Wayne Bryant would have been.

If not for the scandal, he would have been sitting here, front and center in Committee Room 4 of New Jersey's Statehouse annex, presiding over state budget hearings.

Being chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee was a role, his colleagues say, that the state senator cherished, and one in which he shone.

Yesterday, as state Treasurer Brad Abelow presented the committee with Gov. Corzine's proposed budget, Bryant was conspicuously absent.

A lot has changed since federal authorities last year began investigating whether the veteran legislator, long accused of feeding from the public trough, had committed any crimes.

Bryant, 59, stepped down from the budget panel in September after a monitor appointed by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie to root out financial abuses at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey concluded that the school had hired Bryant to secure millions of dollars in extra state funding.

As investigators have closed in and the prospect of a federal grand jury indictment has loomed closer - sources said one could come as early as today - Bryant, who is known to keep to himself, has retreated even further from public life.

Last month, he announced his retirement from Zeller & Bryant, the law firm he helped found. And since then, the lawmaker of almost 30 years has confirmed that he will not seek reelection this year.

"Obviously, he's taking a much lower profile with everything that's going on," said Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a friend and political ally who served with Bryant on the budget committee.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) said Bryant was "more subdued."

"Mentally, it's got to be very tough," Codey said. "Someone who's had this long and storied career all of a sudden has this cloud over him."

Friends and colleagues said the federal probe and possibility of indictment weren't the half of it.

The biggest change in Bryant, they said, occurred even before the probe blew up. In April, the senator discovered the body of his 37-year-old son, Wayne Jr., who had died of hernia complications.

"After his son died, he was a different man," Sweeney said. "All you had to do is look in his eyes."

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) said the death of Bryant's son had started "an impossible year for him."

In September, the federal monitor blasted Bryant's job at UMDNJ. Investigators - state and federal - have been swarming since, asking questions and demanding records tied to Bryant's work for several other publicly funded institutions and agencies.

Bryant, who issued a statement denying the UMDNJ allegations when they arose, has refused to address the investigation since then.

When reporters have approached him, he has rebuffed them. On one occasion, he hummed through requests for comment. At other times, aides have doubled as bodyguards, fending off advances.

Throughout the frenzy, Bryant has continued to work.

While his retirement from Zeller & Bryant was effective March 1, he performed the duties of municipal solicitor at a meeting in his hometown of Lawnside this month. Asked why he was there, Bryant said he could move in and out of retirement as he pleased.

At the latest Lawnside meeting, Monday night, he was gone again. Earlier that day, he skipped a meeting in Trenton of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools.

But the senator has otherwise kept up with most of his Statehouse commitments.

While Bryant has kept a low profile in his district, and made fewer public appearances outside of Trenton, "I think he's trying very hard to keep focused on his work here and continues to do the best he can," said Roberts, a South Jersey political ally.

According to legislative records, Bryant has been at the Statehouse at least 10 days since the beginning of the year, and participated in five of seven Senate voting sessions.

He voted for a state comptroller to root out financial waste and abuse, and against the centerpiece of the Legislature's effort to reduce property taxes - a tax-credit program that would grant most homeowners a 20 percent break. (Asked to explain his opposition to the latter bill, he refused.)

At the Senate's last voting session this month, he voted for a pilot program to fund campaigns with public money to reduce the influence of special interests on elections. He also supported two measures aimed at cracking down on corrupt public officials.

How he has spent his time ever since is unclear. Several friends and legislative colleagues said they didn't know where he was, and residents of tiny Lawnside, where Bryant lives in a mansion that some neighbors snidely call the White House, said the senator had made himself scarce.

In Trenton, meanwhile, lawmakers have recessed, and are meeting solely for budget hearings. Normally, Bryant would be at the center of the action.

His absence yesterday was stark.

Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D., Hudson), who replaced Bryant as chairman of the budget committee, recognized several retiring members for whom this would be their last budget season.

"I'd also like to commend someone who isn't here, Wayne Bryant," Kenny added. "He's undergone some tough times over the last year."

Life could soon get even tougher, but whether that worries Bryant is anybody's guess.

"The only person who really knows what Wayne Bryant is thinking," Sweeney said, "is Wayne Bryant."

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

Inquirer staff writer Dwight Ott contributed to this article.

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