Pressure builds in probe of Legislature Corzine and GOPers call for honoring subpoena

Pressure builds in probe of Legislature
Corzine and GOPers call for honoring subpoena

February 13, 2007  Star-Ledger

Gov. Jon Corzine and ranking Republican legislators called yesterday for the immediate release of all records demanded by the U.S. attorney in a widening corruption probe of the New Jersey Legislature.

As Corzine added to the pressure on his own party's lawmakers, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Morris) called for an emergency public meeting of the Legislative Services Commission to investigate why top legislative officials have refused to comply with a grand jury subpoena obtained by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.

DeCroce and other members of the Assembly minority leadership called it "incomprehensible" that the Legislature and the Office of Legislative Services would challenge the U.S. attorney.

"If legislators have made deals to enrich themselves, relatives or friends at the taxpayers' expense, we should be welcoming the U.S. attorney with open arms and cooperating freely and gladly with his investigation," DeCroce said.

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) did not return calls or e-mail requests for comment. But Corzine told reporters the records should be released.

"I think we need to do as much as we can to clean up the challenges we have to the ethical environment we have in this state," Corzine said during a visit to Newark. "I think that's what the U.S. attorney is trying to do, and I support it. ... My reading of history is that those records should be made available."

The growing controversy came after The Star-Ledger reported Sunday that the Office of Legislative Services is secretly fighting a broad federal subpoena targeted at potential conflicts of interest among elected officials who award millions of dollars in discretionary grants.

The subpoena demanded internal memos, confidential e-mail and other records related to the state budget, including any documents pertaining to questions of conflicts raised by members of the Legislature, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

The legal challenge has been sealed by a federal judge because it involves an ongoing criminal grand jury investigation. But in court papers described to The Star-Ledger, the Legislature argued the records are protected by the attorney-client privilege because they deal with advice sought by lawmakers or their staffers.

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Cooper is scheduled to hear the matter tomorrow in Trenton, those sources said.

Members of the Office of Legislative Services would not discuss the matter. Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, also declined comment yesterday.

The federal investigation grew out of a probe of Sen. Wayne Bryant (D-Camden), who was accused last year by a federal monitor of taking a no-show job from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in exchange for funneling at least $12.5 million in public funding to the state institution.

The investigation of Bryant, 59, continues. Bryant, a senator since 1995, has denied any wrongdoing, but he stepped down last fall as chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee following the allegations.

Bryant's Cherry Hill law firm, Zeller & Bryant LLP, took out a large ad in yesterday's New Jersey Law Journal announcing Bryant is retiring from the firm as of March 1.

The U.S. attorney subpoenaed the state Senate, the Treasury Department and legislative offices in October in connection with the Bryant probe. While the Senate and Treasury Department quickly complied, the scope of the information requested of the Office of Legislative Services went beyond Bryant, including material that attorneys for the office maintained are confidential under state statute.

The OLS is a nonpartisan office that provides legal, fiscal and administrative services to the Legislature and its committees. It is overseen by the Legislative Services Commission, a panel consisting of eight members of each house of the Legislature. Codey, DeCroce and Roberts are among its members.

When the OLS decided not to respond for the federal subpoena, Christie's office sought a court order.

A number of Republicans expressed anger yesterday that the OLS had defied the order.

"I believe that the Legislature should waive any attorney-client privilege it might have regarding the subpoena," said Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon), the ranking Republican on the budget committee and a member of the Legislative Services Commission.

Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole (R-Essex) agreed, saying "nothing should be held back."

"This is an investigation into the potential abuse of the people's money, and the Office of Legislative Services and Democrat legislative leaders should not stand in the way," he said.

O'Toole questioned who made the decision to hire outside counsel to represent the Legislature in the case.

According to a Jan. 18 agreement, Newark attorney Edward Dauber was hired to represent the Legislature in connection with an unspecified "subpoena from United States Attorney's Office."

Dauber is a former assistant U.S. attorney and has served as the executive assistant state attorney general. He is charging the Legislature $275 an hour, a rate that goes up to $300 an hour for court time.

Assemblyman Peter Biondi (R-Somerset), another commission member, said hiring attorneys to block a federal probe was contrary to the talk of ethics reform and open government.

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