More than two years before Camden County State Sen. Wayne Bryant was given control of a $4 million pot of tax dollars for selected projects, news reports detailed his penchant for directing state money to business associates.

The state's largest newspaper in 2003 called him "a walking argument" for ethics reform.

Multiple stories questioned Bryant's job at the School of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where prosecutors now allege he traded influence - and grant money - for a low-show post to beef up his state pension.

Yet Bryant remained in charge of the influential Senate budget committee and was given the reins to part of a grant program that had little meaningful oversight.

Among other amounts, he sent the school $200,000 from the Property Tax Assistance and Community Development Fund. A legislative panel could have blocked the grant, but Bryant chaired that committee, too.

Despite all that was known about Bryant by 2005, when the award was made, there is no indication that his fellow Democrats - who controlled state government - attempted to restrain his power or closely monitor where he and other lawmakers sent money from the fund, nicknamed the "MAC account" after the cash-dispensing bank machines.

Instead, they also used the account to boost community programs they favored - including some backed by Republicans - all while promising fiscal restraint.

"There wasn't even a pretense of accountability during the process, and there hasn't been an accounting since," Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union) said this week.

Recent testimony in Bryant's political corruption trial has painted a picture of lawmakers directing money as they pleased.

There was no requirement to make public who sponsored a grant and no formal votes were held, shielding lawmakers from responsibility. Normal checks and balances were suspended as the Legislature, according to trial testimony, controlled money that was supposed to fall under Treasury's supervision.

Only Bryant has been accused of a crime linked to a grant, and the existence of the fund was legal. But after the recent trial revelations, Republicans asked Gov. Corzine's administration to release documents that could show who steered other awards.

"We don't know if Wayne Bryant is the only one who directed monies to his employer," Kean said.

The administration is "reviewing and retrieving responsive documents," a Treasury spokesman said.

Whether Bryant's fellow Democrats were unaware of his reported conflicts or ignored them, many of them used the account between late 2004 and early 2006, when Corzine dissolved it.

Some have prospered and even say they helped to clean up New Jersey's system of earmarks.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex), who was then governor, remains a popular figure.

Albio Sires, a Hudson County Democrat who was Assembly speaker - and who benefited from the fund when at least $7.6 million flowed to West New York, where he was also mayor - is now in Congress.

Then-Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts (D., Camden), who, with Sires, was a key figure in budget talks, has become Assembly speaker.

Another Camden County Democrat, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, remains in charge of his house's budget committee.

John McCormac, then state treasurer, became mayor of Woodbridge. His top deputy, David Rousseau, holds McCormac's old job.

Each had authority or oversight over the budget and were in positions to know about the grant program, which they continued even as Democrats warned of a fiscal crisis that in 2005 forced them to slash property-tax rebates by roughly $600 million.

Codey, as governor, pledged then that "the era of spending like there's no tomorrow ends right now." But he included the $40 million fund in his roughly $28 billion budget, worked out with Sires and Roberts.

"We were in dire straits, so I cut the program in half," Codey said in a recent interview, noting that the fund had been $88 million the previous year. He said the grants kept local taxes down by paying for important projects.

"These earmarks are property-tax relief," he said.

Even critics say that most of the causes were good. Lawmakers tapped the fund for road repairs and community-center renovations. Youth groups got help, as did arts programs and public-safety organizations. Almost all of the money went to programs backed by Democrats.

But Republicans question the award process, which allowed Bryant to send money to his employer and let mayors who were also legislators steer large sums to their hometowns.

The most prominent official named in the Bryant trial is Codey, who was immensely powerful and popular at the time.

Casting himself as a regular guy who cracked jokes from the podium, Codey had stepped in as governor after James E. McGreevey resigned. In that job he oversaw state spending. Simultaneously serving as Senate president, he decided who led the upper-house committees that check the governor, and he left Bryant in power.

According to testimony in the Bryant trial, Codey controlled $12 million of the fund, while Bryant and another top Democrat each had $4 million to give to projects.

Codey and Assembly leaders have said that all requests eventually ended up at the Treasury Department. The budget specifies that Treasury should have determined the awards.

"These were programs that went to vulnerable citizens or went to property-tax relief," Greenwald said, disputing the idea that lawmakers controlled the money. "I had no final control or authority over those funds."

Asked why no one flagged the awards to Bryant's known employers, Greenwald, whose committee oversees state spending, said he trusted Treasury to vet the requests.

"The thought process always was that they were approved by Treasury," he said in an interview.

But McCormac, then treasurer, told Greenwald's budget committee in 2005, "[Treasury is] not involved at all in the approval process of these grants. Those come to us pre-approved by the leadership of the Assembly and the leadership of the Senate."

Recent testimony from Rousseau, the current treasurer, and George LeBlanc, a top budget aide for the Senate Democrats, reiterated McCormac's assertion.

Greenwald was, and remains, vice chair of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, a Democrat-dominated panel that could have overridden the awards. Aside from one vote on a technicality, the committee - led by Bryant - never discussed the grants.

Codey said Democrats have since made changes to ensure transparency on earmarks. Facing a lawsuit, Corzine eliminated the controversial MAC account in 2006 and subsequently called for reforms. Six months later, Codey unveiled a plan that required lawmakers to put budget requests in writing.

"You're writing a story about a process that's extinct," Greenwald said last week.

Republicans and Democrats have tucked money for pet projects into state and national budgets for years and both parties scream about it, Codey said.

"It was hypocrisy on both sides," he said. He called the new process "the most transparent" in the country.

Sires did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story. McCormac said he could not comment because he may be a witness in the Bryant trial.

Roberts - the Assembly speaker who in 2005 pledged to cut spending "to the bone" - contested assertions that lawmakers ever had final say over the money.

"Legislators have a right and an obligation to advocate for things that they believe in, and the administration has an obligation as well to make sure that money is spent properly," he said.

He and other Democrats say it is time to move on.

"It's really unproductive to talk about the way that some of the budget decisions were made in previous administrations," he said. "We have completely transformed the process and it is a process that is open with disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and operates in the way that it should."