Bryant: Another no-show job for S. Jersey's Bryant? He sent staff from his law firm to argue cases on child support in his stead, court workers say.

Another no-show job for S. Jersey's Bryant?
He sent staff from his law firm to argue cases on child support in his stead, court workers say.
October 1, 2006  Inquirer

New Jersey State Sen. Wayne Bryant, already under federal investigation and accused of holding a no-show job at a state university, is racking up lucrative pension credits for another taxpayer-funded job he doesn't always do.

Bryant earns nearly $60,000 as a lawyer for the Gloucester County Board of Social Services. One of his key responsibilities is to represent the board in child-support cases in Family Court.

While Bryant, 58, counts the work toward his public pension calculation and it could add thousands to his retirement income, junior staffers from his law firm have been appearing in court on his behalf, according to court workers. And he has filed time sheets saying he spent eight or more hours on county business on days he was in Trenton doing legislative work.

Bryant showed up in court last week for the first time in months after The Inquirer started asking questions about the position. He wouldn't discuss the job, and his lawyer did not return phone calls.

The practice Bryant is engaging in - collecting pension credits for work done at least in part by his firm - is legal and widespread in New Jersey. But it is increasingly under scrutiny as state lawmakers attempt to rein in ballooning public-pension costs and free money for property-tax relief.

"The rule should be, an honest pension for an honest day's work," said retired Goldman Sachs executive Philip D. Murphy, who chaired a governor-appointed task force that reviewed public employee benefits.

In a 2005 report, the Murphy Commission faulted the state for allowing the "politically well-connected" to "game" the pension system. The panel concluded that "professional services vendors," such as municipal lawyers and engineers hired by public agencies, should not get a pension for what is essentially contract work. The New Jersey State Commission on Investigation arrived at a similar conclusion seven years ago in a report on pension abuses.

The state commission asked legislators to examine the problem, but no fixes were made.

Critics say that is because lawmakers are beholden to professionals who donate generously to their campaigns. Or, in Bryant's case, the lawmaker himself is a participant.

Several other lawmakers have jobs as professionals on public payrolls, but whether they perform the work themselves is difficult to determine.

Bryant, an influential Camden County Democrat, has long been criticized for feeding off the system. Most recently, he has come under fire for a job he held at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Last month, a federal monitor investigating the school concluded Bryant was given a $35,000-a-year, no-work job in return for using his "political juice" to secure millions in extra funding for the university.

In his report submitted to U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, whose office already had Bryant under criminal investigation, the monitor also concluded that even though the part-time position Bryant held should not have qualified for inclusion in his public pension calculation, school administrators rigged it so it would.

Bryant has issued a statement denying the monitor's allegations.

Last year, Bryant earned $177,700 from four taxpayer-funded jobs that count toward his pension: the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey position, an adjunct professorship at Rutgers University-Camden, his Senate seat, and the Gloucester County job. The universities no longer employ Bryant, but under the state's pension formula - which is based on a public employee's three highest years of salary and total years of service - he would collect nearly $82,000 a year if he retired today.

The county job, which Bryant has held since 1996, boosts his pension significantly. His salary, which is approved each year by a Democrat-dominated board, has almost quadrupled in the last decade, from $14,700 to $58,700.

Social-services director Carol Pirrotta attributed the increases to a "dramatic increase" in workload, citing a 2003 state directive that requires attorneys to be in court during child-support hearings. Bryant's salary history shows he was granted increases almost every year, with his pay nearly doubling in 2000 - before the directive.

And even though Bryant ostensibly was getting paid more because he had to be in court every Wednesday, all day, several court employees said they hadn't seen the senator in a long time - or ever.

Two sheriff's officers who work in a rotation of other officers standing guard at the child-support hearings said they hadn't seen Bryant in months. Two other officers said they didn't know him. And one of two hearing officers assigned to the Woodbury courtroom said he had only ever seen junior staffers from Bryant's firm in his seven years on the job.

Pirrotta and one social-services board member said that as far as they knew, Bryant was doing all the work and doing it well.

"We didn't vote on anyone else but him," board member Cassandra Dilks said. "We didn't vote on a firm."

Said Pirrotta: "If he sends in someone else, I'd rather that than nothing, but we don't pay that person."

On time sheets submitted and signed by Bryant, only his name appears. He reports working an average of 16 hours a week in recent months, with days sometimes as long as 14 hours.

The sheets contain no explanation of the work performed, and in some cases, the hours recorded create what seems like an impossible schedule.

For example, on July 28, Bryant, the attorney, logged 8.3 hours for Gloucester County.

Meanwhile, Bryant, the senator, had a full day in Trenton. At 9 a.m., he chaired a budget committee hearing. At 11, he listened to Gov. Corzine make a speech on property taxes. In the afternoon, he attended a legislative voting session.

Michael Angelini, chief legal counsel to the Board of Social Services, said it was understood that Bryant got help from law firm associates.

"When you bring in Wayne, you're not only getting Wayne Bryant, you are getting his entire law firm, which is a benefit and a plus to the board," Angelini said. "The firm is not getting paid anything more than what Wayne is getting paid."

The salary arrangement, Angelini argued, actually saves taxpayers money. If Bryant charged by the hour, the yearly cost would be higher, he said.

Angelini, who chairs Gloucester County's Democratic Committee, himself last year earned nearly $200,000 - and pension credits - from work at six public agencies, including the social-services board, where he makes $66,700 a year. He said he, too, occasionally used subordinates to help him with work at his public jobs.

Angelini said the practice was nothing new. But state policy-makers, spurred by taxpayers' demands for property-tax relief and budget shortfalls, are now questioning it.

"That's one of the issues that's being debated right now: Are people like attorneys who work in multiple jurisdictions and have associates do their work... are those pension-eligible jobs?" asked Treasury spokesman Tom Vincz.

Until recently, Assemblyman Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R., Somerset) worked as a salaried attorney for three towns. Bateman said that although he did "99.9 percent" of the work, he started to think it wasn't fair to collect pension credits for multiple jobs. So this year, he said, he had the towns reclassify him as a contractor without pension benefits.

"More and more," he said, "I didn't think it was right."

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