See how they squint outside the back room

See how they squint outside the back room

February 21, 2007 Star Ledger - Tom Moran

Let us pause to rejoice. Because Democrats in the Legislature are finally right where they belong -- standing against a wall with their feet spread while the FBI searches their pockets. They are in trouble now. And they deserve it.

The problem is that they got greedy. Every year at budget time, legislative leaders meet behind closed doors to divvy up millions of dollars for their pet projects.

The public and the press are locked out. And the normal rules that require public disclosure are set aside. There are no fingerprints.

Republicans did this when they had power, so don't be fooled by their sanctimony these days. They once approved a $100,000 grant to promote kindness in New Jersey. Enough said.

But Democrats have taken it to a new level. Last year they allocated nearly $350 million this way, with no committee hearings and no opportunity for anyone outside the ruling clique to weigh in. That's double the amount five years ago.

"You know something shady is going on when they do it in the dark of night like this," says GOP Assemblyman Bill Baroni. "It was horrible when Republicans did it, and it's horrible when Democrats do it."

U.S. Attorney Chris Christie no doubt agrees. As usual, he is trying to spoil the fun by issuing one subpoena after another.

The latest went to legislative leadership in both parties, seeking a paper trail to help him find out exactly what individual legislators may have received in return for the money they brought home.

And that brings us to the second big problem -- the effort by Democrats to cripple Christie's investigation by denying him documents he needs.

Christie is seeking paperwork related to the case of Sen. Wayne Bryant, a Democrat of Camden, who once held four government jobs at once, in addition to his private job as a lawyer.

One of those public jobs was a cushy post at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, known for its steady supply of scandal over the last several years. Bryant says it was a real job. But federal monitors posted at the school could find no evidence that he did real work.

That caught Christie's attention because Bryant had earlier won a grant for UMDNJ using this backdoor process. Could there be a connection?

You might think that Democrats would want to help Christie clean house by getting to the bottom of this. But instead they have spent the last week on Bryant's side, trying to shield him from scrutiny.

Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts and Senate President Richard Codey can't discuss their views because the subpoena concerning Bryant is under seal. But several sources said both leaders believe that communications with the Legislature's lawyers are generally protected by attorney-client privilege, as Bryant argues.

Both Roberts and Codey have refused Republican requests to hold a meeting to discuss that policy.

Bowing to Republican pressure, Codey now says he wants to reform the secretive process for awarding these grants, which are known as Christmas tree items. He would require legislators to make their requests in public and submit their proposals to open hearings. He needs to add one more requirement: that they reveal any personal or financial connections to the grant recipient.

"This has been going on for a long time," Codey says. "Republicans criticize us, and we criticized them. It's an annual ritual, and it's time it stopped."

So maybe some good will come of this. In the meantime, Christie's lawyers will be in court today, asking a federal judge to order the Legislature to cooperate.

Wish him luck. If he can snap open the drapes in Trenton, the sunlight may kill some of the rot that's been growing behind those closed doors.

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