Bryant indictment highlights loophole in N.J. ethics law

Wayne Bryant is servinga four-year sentence.
Wayne Bryant is servinga four-year sentence.
Posted: September 29, 2010

When former New Jersey Sen. Wayne Bryant filed his financial-disclosure statements from 2004 to 2006, he listed his law firm, Zeller & Bryant, as a source of earned income.

But Bryant did not have to reveal that his firm received $192,000 in retainer fees during that period from an influential Bergen County law firm.

An indictment filed Monday in federal court charges that while those fees were purportedly for legal work relating to a Meadowlands project, they actually were bribes in exchange for the senator's support of the law firm's clients' development projects, including proposals to redevelop Petty's Island and Cramer Hill in Camden.

The indictment shines a light on a loophole in state ethics law that allows legislators to conceal their financial interests when they represent clients.

In 2004, former Gov. Jim McGreevey signed into law an ethics package that strengthened financial-disclosure statements, requiring legislators, their spouses, and children under age 18 to disclose, for the first time, personal loans, business interests, addresses and descriptions of property owned, as well as the names of all paid or unpaid offices and board positions held.

Under state law and the Legislative Code of Ethics, lawmakers are prohibited from participating in legislation in which they have a personal interest, meaning they would expect to receive a direct monetary gain not generally shared by others in the same business, profession, or occupation.

But New Jersey's financial-disclosure rules do not require lawmakers to identify their clients, how much money they receive from them, or the nature of their work. Gov. Christie has proposed strengthening financial-disclosure rules for legislators, but the details of his plan are not yet available.

Some experts say the Bryant example makes a good case for stronger disclosure rules.

"There has to be a mandate whereby public officials disclose the names of clients who may be benefiting from any legislation," said Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall Law School professor who has led ethics initiatives on behalf of three New Jersey governors. "A case like this, which is, as alleged, so deplorable a violation of the public trust, makes plain the need for enhanced transparency.

"It's clear that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and to see that public office is being used for secretive, privatized gain is precisely the sort of abuse that enhanced disclosure would seek to prevent."

Some other states have recognized the loophole and specifically require lawmakers to identify their clients. California, for example, requires lawmakers to disclose the names of clients from whom the lawmaker earned more than $10,000, and North Carolina requires legislators to list the names of certain clients from whom they received more than $5,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Pennsylvania requires lawmakers to disclose names and addresses of any sources of income above $1,300, but specifically exempts confidential information protected by statute or professional codes, including lawyers and their clients.

"If a professional-code responsibility prohibits a lawyer from disclosing a client's identification, it does not have to be reported here," said John Contino, executive director of the state Ethics Commission.

James Browning, director of development for the Mid-Atlantic region for Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said there are ways to work around the issues of client privilege.

One possible solution, he said, is to require lawmakers to disclose their clients to a state ethics commission, which would vet them to determine conflicts of interest.

"A big potential perk of being a lawmaker is the ability to steer business to your law firm or yourself or friends who are lawyers," Browning said. "It's a constant temptation. If you had disclosure, even just to the ethics commission, that would make people think twice."

Bryant, a Lawnside Democrat and former chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, is serving a four-year sentence after being convicted in 2007 on charges related to helping to secure $10.5 million in state funding for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey after accepting money for a low-show job there.

Bryant's attorney, Carl Poplar, did not return calls for comment.

Bryant was not the first lawmaker to get around the financial-disclosure rules because of the loophole for clients. Former Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D., Bergen) is serving time for accepting more than $100,000 in bribes in exchange for helping to steer more than $1 million in state grants to Hackensack University Medical Center. Coniglio's financial disclosures indicated a consulting job, but not the source of the fees.

Ingrid Reed, chairwoman of a local government ethics task force created by Gov. Jon S. Corzine and continued by Christie, said that while stronger disclosure rules could help, it may be just as important to create a culture in which strong ethical behavior is expected and discussed in the open.

"The really important issue is the climate you establish for what it means to be an ethical person and what your obligations are," Reed said.


Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu

at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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