Agency rejects Bryant's bid

January 23, 2008 12:43:56 PM PST
State election law officials on Wednesday rejected former state Sen. Wayne Bryant's bid to use his campaign cash to pay legal bills stemming from his indictment on federal corruption charges.

Bryant's request to the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission was the first time anyone has sought approval to use campaign money to defend against criminal charges, but the commission in a 3-0 vote decided it would be improper use of campaign donations.

"The integrity of our system should be at the highest standard," said Jerry Fitzgerald English, the commissioner chairwoman.

Bryant's attorney, Richard Weinroth, declined to comment after the decision. He said he would wait until the commission put its ruling in writing, but said he could ask a state appellate court to overturn the decision.

Bryant did not attend the hearing, which lasted about a half-hour.

Bryant didn't seek re-election after 25 years in the Legislature and his term expired on Jan. 8.

The Camden County Democrat's latest campaign report, filed Jan.

15, showed he has about $640,000 available.

Bryant was indicted in April on 20 counts of using his clout as head of the Senate budget committee to steer millions in grants to two state schools that gave him no-show jobs, and using those and other jobs to triple his publicly funded pension.

He has pleaded not guilty and a trial is set for April 14.

Weinroth had argued Bryant should be allowed to use his campaign money to defend against the charges because they're tied to his elected duties.

But commissioners said using campaign donations to defend against criminal charges didn't fall within ELEC's regulations that permit contributions to be spent on "ordinary and necessary expenses of holding public office."

"I would find it a torturing of the ordinary and necessary standard," Commissioner Albert Burstein said.

Commissioner Peter J. Tober agreed.

"I just could not see where the use of campaign funds for legal defense fits in the 'ordinary and necessary' definition," he said.

It wasn't immediately clear how the decision would affect former Democratic Sen. Joseph Coniglio, who last year used $90,000 in campaign fund on his legal defense without asking ELEC's permission.

Coniglio has been told he's being targeted in a federal corruption probe, but hasn't been indicted and insists he's not guilty. He didn't seek re-election and saw his term end on Jan. 8.

Frederick Herrmann, ELEC's executive director, said Wednesday's decision "may have applicability for other candidates in a similar situation." He would neither elaborate nor comment on whether ELEC would take action against Coniglio.

ELEC had previously decided that elected officials could use campaign contributions for election recounts and to defend against defamation, civil campaign spending violation charges and to appear before a legislative ethics committee.