menendez: Embattled Bryant at rally for Menendez. Observer calls it "a huge miscalculation"

Embattled Bryant at rally for Menendez
Observer calls it "a huge miscalculation"

10/13/2006 Asbury Park Press

CAMDEN — U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez campaigned in Camden on Thursday, sharing the stage with an entourage that included U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat who is a rising star within the national party, and embattled state Sen. Wayne Bryant.

Appearing with Bryant was "a shocking mistake," said Jill Hazelbaker, spokeswoman for Republican candidate Thomas H. Kean Jr.

"Here we have two machine politicians under federal criminal investigation sharing the same stage," Hazelbaker said. "Perhaps they can share notes on who has the best criminal defense attorneys."

After the rally at Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church, Menendez tried to distance himself from Bryant, a powerful Democratic state senator from Lawnside.

"We did not invite him and did not know he was going to be there," said Matthew Miller, a Menendez spokesman.

Menendez's appearance with Bryant was "a huge miscalculation," said Rider University political scientist David Rebovich, because allegations of corruption have dogged Menendez throughout the campaign.

Menendez has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury to provide details of a lease agreement he signed with a nonprofit group that he helped get federal aid.

Bryant's legal fees are the target of four recent subpoenas from state and federal grand juries.

A federal monitor appointed to oversee finances at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey issued a report that said the school created a $35,000-a-year no-work job for Bryant.

The monitor said Bryant showed up at most only one morning per week and did nothing more than read newspapers, while helping bring $12.8 million in additional state funding to the school over three years.

State and federal grand juries also have subpoenaed records related to how Bryant, as chairman of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, cast the deciding vote to steer an extra $1 million to Camden in 2005 without disclosing that the money would be used, in part, to pay his legal fees.

Bryant has said the federal monitor's report was inaccurate. He has not commented on the $1 million allocation, which created a reserve fund for Randy Primas, the chief operating officer of Camden and Bryant's longtime friend.

Bryant's law firm later was paid $56,000 from the million-dollar fund.

Bryant's brother, Mark, who is the mayor of Lawnside, also shared the stage with Menendez during Thursday's rally and sat next to Primas.

Before the rally, Mark Bryant dismissed the significance of the subpoenas against his brother.

"All a subpoena is is a question," Mark Bryant said.

The campaign between Menendez, D-N.J., and Kean, a state senator from Westfield, is being closely watched because the battle for control in the U.S. Senate is much closer than expected, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Polls have shown a close race between Menendez and Kean, the son of a former governor by the same name.

During the rally, a hoarse Bryant exhorted the crowd to support Menendez.

"Tell everyone that you have seen the man that's been our United States senator, who wants to help and raise the minimum wage, so the little man can make some more," Bryant said.

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