Letter hints at a scandal's tangled roots

Posted: April 23, 2007

On its face, there is nothing too unusual about the March 2002 letter that State Sen. Wayne Bryant signed in support of R. Michael Gallagher's promotion to dean of the School of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Writing such recommendations is, after all, fairly routine business for lawmakers.

But five years later, federal prosecutors say the powerful Camden County Democrat's lobbying efforts on behalf of Gallagher marked the beginning of a "symbiotic relationship" between the pair that led to Bryant's getting a no-show, pension-boosting job at the state school - and to the raft of corruption and fraud charges both men now face.

All of a sudden, the letter has become a source of special interest. So have the stories of the four other South Jersey lawmakers who signed the letter with Bryant.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, and State Sen. John Adler, all of Camden County, and Sen. Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County, have been interviewed by the FBI about Bryant, Gallagher and the letter.

None of the lawmakers has been implicated in the alleged plot that prosecutors say Bryant and Gallagher hatched to enrich themselves and each other. And though one declined to comment for the article, the rest say their involvement with the letter, though perhaps regrettable in retrospect, was purely innocent.

But their explanations of how they met and came to support Gallagher shed new light on the circumstances surrounding the genesis of his alleged partnership with Bryant.

According to a 20-count federal indictment returned last month, after Gallagher rose to become dean of the osteopathic school in Stratford, Camden County, he put Bryant on the payroll in a bogus "program support coordinator" position. In return, prosecutors say, Bryant, then chair of the Senate budget committee, was expected to use his influence in Trenton to represent the school's interests and secure millions of dollars in extra state funding.

Bryant and Gallagher have pleaded not guilty and have declined through their attorneys to comment on the charges.

The indictment does not spell out how the two met. But they have a strong connection in Warren Wallace, a South Jersey Democrat with close ties to Bryant who worked under Gallagher at UMDNJ.

Wallace, of Sewell, ultimately was ousted from his $166,000 job at the osteopathic school after a federal monitor appointed by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie last year accused him of abusing his position by, among other things, steering a catering contract to a friend.

Wallace, who declined to comment for this article, has not been charged with any crime. But lawmakers said he played a major role in lining up support for the letter pushing his boss' promotion.

According to the indictment, "Bryant and others" in early 2002 began helping Gallagher, then vice dean of the osteopathic school, in his effort to get the top job. That assistance, the indictment says, included arranging meetings between Gallagher and legislators and drafting the March 19, 2002, recommendation letter "signed by Bryant and four other members of the New Jersey State Legislature" and sent to then-UMDNJ president Stuart Cook and then-Gov. Jim McGreevey. Assembly Speaker Roberts, who was then Assembly majority leader, declined to discuss his involvement, saying in an e-mail forwarded by a spokesman that "there is a trial under way and I think it would be totally inappropriate to comment on any aspect of Sen. Bryant's case."

Greenwald, Adler and Sweeney, the other three lawmakers who signed the letter, all said they couldn't recall who actually wrote the recommendation or how it became a joint endeavor. But Bryant, they said, wasn't the one who got them involved.

They said they met with Gallagher at the request of other political associates - Wallace, in two cases, and Gallagher's son in another. But the lawmakers said they ultimately threw their weight behind Gallagher - a nationally known headache expert who was then vice dean at the osteopathic school - because they believed he was a good candidate for dean.

Sweeney said he met with Gallagher at the request of Wallace, a friend and fellow Gloucester County freeholder.

"Warren said, 'Would you be willing to sign a letter of support?' " Sweeney said. "For me, it was a no-brainer. His resume read like a phone book, it was so thick. . . . It was a letter of recommendation for someone more than qualified."

Adler, too, said Wallace, whom he called a political associate, arranged an introduction to Gallagher. And after meeting in the senator's Westmont office, Adler said: "I agreed. . . . Dr. Gallagher was a good candidate for dean."

Greenwald said he met Gallagher through his son Michael Jr., who worked in the legislative office Greenwald and Adler shared after interning for then-U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine. The younger Gallagher also was executive director of the Gloucester County Democratic Committee for a short spell, Sweeney said.

"He came to me and said, 'Would you mind meeting my dad? He's going for this job as dean,' " Greenwald said. "Just as I would for any young person and certainly someone who worked for me, I said, 'Absolutely.' "

The pair met and Greenwald said he liked what he saw.

"I was impressed by the interview, so I instructed my office I would support him through a letter of recommendation," said Greenwald, who, like Adler, said someone from his office ultimately signed the letter on his behalf.

A copy of the letter could not be obtained. The legislators said it was so long ago they didn't know whether they kept a copy or where to look for one. The governor's office said it did not have a copy, and a search of McGreevey's files in the state archives proved fruitless. UMDNJ officials, meanwhile, refused to release the letter, claiming it was exempt from the state open records act.

To what extent the letter helped Gallagher's case is unclear, but Cook, the UMDNJ president, did name him interim dean shortly afterward. And in November 2002, Gallagher became permanent dean.

That fall, prosecutors say, Bryant approached Cook about a job at the osteopathic school. Cook did not return a call for comment. The meeting with Cook, prosecutors say, led to a meeting among Bryant, Gallagher, and an unnamed UMDNJ vice president. A few months after that, in early 2003, Gallagher created the fake $35,000-a-year job for Bryant, according to the indictment.

Five years later, the other lawmakers who threw their support behind Gallagher have been left to grapple with the fact that they commended a man federal prosecutors now say is an out-and-out criminal.

Said Greenwald: "It goes without saying that if the allegations are true, we're disappointed."

Sweeney was a little more blunt: "You think, 'How did I get anywhere near this thing?' "

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

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