Bryant conviction could spur ethics bills

Posted: November 20, 2008

Some would-be reformers are eyeing the conviction of former State Sen. Wayne R. Bryant as an impetus to tighten ethics rules in a state where change usually comes slowly and reluctantly.

"If not now, when?" asked Sen. Bill Baroni (R., Mercer), who has long called for ethics legislation.

He pointed to Bryant, a former Camden County Democrat found guilty Tuesday on 12 corruption-related charges, and more than 100 similar cases in recent years.

"If these very real examples of the culture of corruption doesn't move our leadership, nothing ever will, except maybe the voters next November," he said.

Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly issued statements Tuesday saying the Bryant verdict showed the need to do more to build on ethics rules, and Gov. Corzine said last week that the ethics package he proposed in September and economic-recovery bills were his top priorities for the rest of 2008.

But none of the plans on the table would directly address some of the key issues in the Bryant case.

Bryant was found guilty in large part because he did little work in his $35,000-a-year job at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey while as a senator he steered millions of dollars to the school. Prosecutors called it a "sham" job that boosted his pension in exchange for influence.

While the case showed that it is illegal to explicitly sell influence, lawmakers with legitimate jobs are not clearly prohibited to direct money to their employers, according to a top lawyer for the Legislature.

"That question is largely unanswered even after the Bryant trial," said Albert Porroni, executive director of the Office of Legislative Services, the Legislature's nonpartisan research arm. "There's no real statute that addresses that issue specifically."

Some advocates say there should be.

Baroni said that years ago he had proposed a bill that would have barred lawmakers from working for public entities in their districts. The rule would have blocked Bryant from working for the school and for the Gloucester County Board of Social Services, where he also had a low-show job that inflated his pension.

In 2007, the liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective released a report saying more than 700 elected New Jersey officials held second jobs also paid by taxpayers. The group's president, Jon Shure, said the state should review potential conflicts and bar dual-job arrangements in which there could be a conflict. The state's dual-office ban addresses only elected positions.

Shure said that his first report "hasn't gotten any traction," but that he hoped renewed attention might spur action.

"The state and its citizens will be better served if we have a good set of dos and don'ts ahead of the game and not be relying on juries and prosecutors to set these standards," Shure said.

Corzine's latest ethics plan focuses on closing loopholes in laws that limit the financial influence that government contractors and entrenched party leaders can have on campaigns. The plan would follow through on a Corzine promise and address two issues most often cited by watchdog groups and Republicans calling for reform.

It remains to be seen what parts of his plan survive in the Legislature. The state has gone through several rounds of ethics overhauls, but in each case compromises watered down the rules.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) has not publicly embraced Corzine's plan. Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) said in an interview Monday, before the Bryant verdict, that he expected action on parts of the package this year but that final approval might stretch into 2009. He said some pieces were being "fine-tuned."

Some lawmakers worry about the side effects of putting more limits on campaign contributions. If candidates cannot effectively raise money, only the super-rich who can pay for their own campaigns will be able to seek office, some argue.

Others lawmakers privately say ethics rules are a media-driven issue. Asked about their concerns, ordinary people will name the economy or taxes, not ethics, many officials say.

Given the string of corruption convictions, that premise seems likely to be tested next year, especially if U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie runs for governor on his résumé of more than 130 corruption convictions.

On Tuesday, Christie and other Republicans used their time in the spotlight to spread the culpability for Bryant's crimes.

Christie said it was an "abomination" that Bryant had been in a position of authority, and Republican state chairman Tom Wilson said the conviction was a "black eye" on Democrats, who left Bryant in power as chair of the budget committee.

Reports in multiple newspapers had pointed out as early as 2003 that Bryant began steering money to the medical school shortly after landing a job there. It was unclear at the time that he was doing almost no work.

He remained in charge of the influential budget panel until late 2007, when a federal monitor reported that Bryant's job had virtually no responsibilities.

Codey, who chooses who chairs Senate committees, did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment.

Republicans eyeing gubernatorial and Assembly elections next year are banking on the Bryant case to prompt movement.

Baroni said tougher penalties for officials convicted of corruption, including the automatic loss of their entire pensions, should also be part of an ethics plan.

"What you're going to see is either Trenton and the Legislature clean this up," Baroni said, "or juries and the voters will."


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

 

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