Little hope for change with the foxes still in charge
The cynical saying that we get the government we deserve is attributed to H.L. Mencken. And while I dont know exactly what Mencken was referring to when he said it, it might just as well have been New Jersey politics, where the more we say things are changing, the less they really do.
Take, for instance, the perennial reelection of one of the poster children of nepotism and conflict of interest, Sen. Wayne Bryant (D-Dist. 5), who represents the Camden area. He has held that office for nearly 11 years, with no foreseeable end in sight. Before winning his Senate seat, Bryant served 13 years as a member of the General Assembly, for a total of 24 years in the legislature. Thats what you call a safe seat. Bryant is the chair of the state Senates powerful Budget and Appropriations Committee, giving him influence over state funds and budgets.
You would think that would require him to act with accountability; in fact, Bryant has been called the king of double dipping, because he collects salaries from four public jobs.
In addition to his legislative salary of $49,000, the senator was hired by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jerseys School of Osteopathic Medicine as a community affairs consultant for $38,220 a year. The Camden campus of Rutgers University also hired Bryant as a $35,000-per-year adjunct professor. In Lawnside, where his brother Mark is mayor, Bryant is the municipal attorney, earning $74,373 last year.
He is presently under investigation by the U.S. Attorneys Office for the way millions of dollars were steered to UMDNJ over a three-year period after he was hired. For instance, as the state budget was being completed last year, Bryant inserted a last-minute provision giving $2.7 million to UMDNJ for debt service.
In 1992, Bryant was reprimanded by the Legislatures Ethics Committee for using improper influence to win a $2.8 million state lease for a Cherry Hill office building of which he was a part owner.
According to The Star-Ledger, Bryant was the architect of the $175 million Camden Recovery Act, passed in 2002. Bryant is a paid board member of Susquehanna Patriot Bank, which received $5 million in deposits from the state recovery funds, and which will also benefit from tax breaks Bryant put into the bill for when it moves to the Camden waterfront.
That same recovery act included a little-noticed provision giving $1 million to brother Marks Camcare Health Corporation.
Bryants law firm received $270,000 for legal work to acquire properties in the redevelopment area.
Bryants latest questionable dealings concern his new Lawnside home, built on land he purchased from a developer seeking a contract from the town to build 300 apartments and condominiums. It shouldnt surprise you that the municipal attorney for Lawnside is none other than Wayne Bryant, brother of the mayor, and a person in a position to help that developer win his bid.
Appearances of conflicts, nepotism, and questionable dealings are sometimes just that appearances and perhaps Bryant is indeed a principled lawmaker with talented, civic-minded relatives and the energy to do so many jobs so well.
No, his record is much a statement about NJs approach to reform as it is about any one lawmaker.
According to Morris County state Assemblyman Rick Merkt (R-Dist. 25), there is a predictable pattern to demands for reform.
First, legislators delay for as long as possible, before doing anything at all, in the hopes that the public demand for reform will simply dissipate. Then, they do as little as they can get away with, if they must. Third, they make sure the reform has enough loopholes you could navigate the Queen Mary through them then they loudly proclaim to the media and to anyone else who might be listening that this represents the most extensive (fill in the blank) reform in New Jerseys history.
And, Merkt says, that would be true, because there never was any reform at all, so even a .00001 percent reform is the most extensive reform in history. The sad thing is that then the media and we the public buy it.
Take, for instance, nepotism reform. Before an anti-nepotism law was passed in the Legislature in early 2004, almost one in five lawmakers put family members on their payrolls, according to an investigation by Gannett New Jersey Newspapers. But the reform that was passed says basically that legislators cannot hire close family members for their legislative staffs and largely ignores a tangled web of appointments, favoritism, and other conflicts.
Still, official Trenton patted itself on the back. Its been that way with dual-office holding, pay-to-play, and every other major political corruption problem that we consider the way business is done in New Jersey.
As Merkt noted, it is possible to write comprehensive reforms that will stop these abuses and put an end to the actions of guys like Bryant, but that presupposes that legislators truly want reform.
Obviously, when the Wayne Bryants control New Jersey politics, they do not.
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