Bribes, Payoffs, Politics: Governor to Bryant: Step aside

Governor to Bryant: Step aside
Urges leadership change over UMDNJ job charges
Star Ledger September 19, 2006

Gov. Jon Corzine yesterday called for Sen. Wayne Bryant to step down as head of the powerful Budget and Appropriations Committee, amid charges that the influential South Jersey legislator steered millions in funding to the state's scandal-ridden medical university after he was given a no-show job.

"Sometimes in other legislative situations, people step aside until due process follows its course. There are many precedents where people step aside while an investigation goes on," Corzine said during a news conference in Newark. "I think I'm making a clear enough suggestion."

Neither Bryant nor his attorney returned calls for comment.

According to the federal monitor overseeing the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Bryant pressured the state institution to create a no-work job that essentially allowed him to "lobby himself" for taxpayer funds.

After the Camden County Democrat took the job in March 2003, state funding for the university's School of Osteopathic Medicine, near Camden, increased substantially -- from $2.7 million in 2003 to $5.83 million in 2004. However, no one could document any real work Bryant did on campus, said the monitor, former federal Judge Herbert J. Stern, who was appointed in December after the university was threatened with criminal prosecution for Medicaid fraud.

The accusations, contained in a report sent to the U.S. Attorney's Office last week and made public yesterday, were first reported in The Sunday Star-Ledger.

Those interviewed by Stern's office said Bryant spent only three hours a week on campus, from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays -- and, even then, inconsistently. While Bryant was in his university office, the only thing anyone observed him doing was reading newspapers.

Stern, who in previous reports found that waste, fraud and abuse at UMDNJ could exceed $243 million, said Bryant also was given state pension credits for a job ineligible for such benefits. Bryant declined to be interviewed by the monitor.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, which is investigating Bryant's role at UMDNJ as part of a continuing probe into the troubled university, declined to comment on the monitor's report.

UMDNJ spokeswoman Anna Farneski noted that Bryant, who quit his university post in February, is no longer employed by the school, nor are the people who hired him.

"The kinds of actions described in the monitor's report would not be tolerated now, and will not be tolerated in the future," she said.

Corzine said that while he had yet to read the monitor's report, he would be troubled if the facts as laid out were true. At the same time, however, he noted the governor had no authority to force a member of the Legislature to quit a leadership post.

"As you well know, there is a legal principle of separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branch, so I think whatever actions should be taken, if they're appropriate, I think they need to be done on that basis," he remarked. "It shouldn't be the executive branch indicating to legislators how they should be running their operations."

It would be up to Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) to decide whether Bryant will continue to chair the Budget and Appropriations Committee, which controls the state's purse strings.

Codey issued a brief statement on the report yesterday:

"There's a process underway here and I think we owe it to everyone involved to let that process take its course before we make any judgments or decisions," Codey said.

Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) found Stern's report "very disturbing." Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce said it was just more evidence that New Jersey has a long way to go in stamping out the culture of corruption.

"It is evident that our current ethics laws are doing little to dissuade public officials from engaging in unethical and illegal behavior at the taxpayer's expense," said DeCroce (R-Morris).

Corzine said UMDNJ was taking steps to change the way it does business.

"Looking to the future, I'm a lot more optimistic about where I want to be. We are dedicated to changing the culture," he said.

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