Bryant trial hits at N.J. politics Insider dealings and favors are on display.

Posted: October 30, 2008

When the corruption trial of former State Sen. Wayne Bryant resumes today, attention will return to a case that has given credence to some of the worst suspicions about how government business gets done in New Jersey.

As a result of trial testimony and related disclosures, jurors and the public have so far learned about favors for political insiders and secretive spending of taxpayer money. There were public jobs that pumped up lawmakers' salaries and pensions even if they didn't do the work, and talk of political "payback" in exchange for one cushy post.

At the top were county, state and political leaders linked by a knot of intersecting political and personal interests.

Only two men - Bryant and R. Michael Gallagher, former dean of the University of Medicine and Dentistry's School of Osteopathic Medicine - face criminal charges in the federal trial. But the case's sworn testimony, pointed questions from prosecutors and fallout in the Statehouse have cast an unflattering light on past and current officials in Trenton and Gloucester County, the state's flagship medical school, key figures in New Jersey's political power structure and several sitting lawmakers.

"Unfortunately, whenever you deal with issues like this everyone gets smacked with it a little bit," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), one of the many public officials mentioned during the trial.

Among other recent high-profile cases brought by U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, the trial of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James centered largely on his actions in that city. A sweeping probe that rippled through former Gov. Jim McGreevey's administration reached deep into state government and eventually led to charges against former Senate President John Lynch. But he pleaded guilty, avoiding the disclosures that would accompany a trial.

The collateral damage done by this case, on the other hand, has been far-reaching.

"The Bryant trial is unique in the way the prosecution has tried to make its case by shedding light on, or placing a light on, how lots of things get done," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

Bryant's attorney, Carl Poplar, has not contested the picture of insider dealings. Instead, he has said, it was just Jersey politics, and legal.

Take, for example, Bryant's job at the Gloucester County Board of Social Services, where he and others with political ties landed work. Bryant is charged with collecting the salary and pension increase that came with thousands of hours clocked on the job while his law associates did most of the work.

Board employees testified that another former attorney there, Raymond Zane, followed a similar practice. He was also a Democratic state senator before he fell out of favor with the party.

A councilwoman from Woodbury (part of Bryant's legislative district) sat on the board, and the agency's top attorney was Michael Angelini, who heads the Gloucester County Democratic Party and holds several public posts.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Drew attempted to connect some of the dots.

His questions played up political connections. One pointed at Sweeney, who is both Gloucester County freeholder director and a senator, having taken the seat from Zane. Angelini, who was born in Camden, lives in West Deptford, he noted.

"So you know how South Jersey works," Drew said.

As freeholder director, Sweeney had a hand in steering the county board that employed Bryant and Angelini. But at the state level, Bryant held power as the Senate budget chair. Sweeney was a committee member.

Documents released as a result of the trial show that Sweeney sought funding for projects in his district that would have come through $4 million in grants that Bryant controlled.

Sweeney, however, said Bryant was hired by the Social Service board before he became a freeholder. He said he did not depend on the former budget chair for state aid and did not know the extent to which Bryant controlled grant money.

"If I'm the senator and the freeholder director, I think I can advocate for myself," Sweeney said.

The $4 million that Bryant controlled was part of a $128 million fund that Democrats tapped for causes chosen with little oversight in 2005 and 2006. With testimony highlighting the program, Gov. Corzine released documents showing ties not only to lawmakers, but also to unelected officials and political fund-raisers.

A North Jersey congressman got $200,000 in state money for his district. Unelected aides to then-Gov. Richard J. Codey and at least one lobbyist appear on spreadsheets in the same columns as lawmakers seeking money for their districts.

One set of awards was labeled "Norcross grants," a nod to South Jersey political powerbroker George Norcross. Despite holding no official government post, he steered more than $300,000 to causes such as Pennsauken High School, his alma mater, and a scholarship program at the private Lawrenceville School.

In a statement issued by his attorney, William Tambussi, Norcross said Codey told him "he had authority over a substantial amount of discretionary funds" and that he could recommend $500,000 for worthy programs. "I was delighted to recommend several deserving causes."

Codey, through a spokeswoman, said their only conversation on the grants was about a scholarship program.

UMDNJ's Stratford campus has been another focal point. The school allegedly hired Bryant in exchange for his influence. When $200,000 arrived from the grant program, Gallagher called it "payback time" according to a school official who testified.

The revelations have already provided fodder for the current campaigns and come one year before a gubernatorial election in which Christie is widely expected to run.

Gov. Corzine has largely insulated himself from the situation. He was not in office when the state grant program was used, and he put a stop to it after coming to power.

But the man Corzine named treasurer, David Rousseau, appears prominently in the program's files, showing how he helped coordinate the grants that spent millions of dollars while Democrats publicly proclaimed the start of an era of austerity.

Sweeney, who is up for reelection as a freeholder, said he did not expect political repercussions from the trial.

When it ends, he said, people will move on.

"Obviously he's going to be innocent or guilty," he said. "Based on that, you go on with life."

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 609-989-9016 or jtamari@phillynews.com.

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