The controversial "MAC account" that New Jersey Democrats used to dish out taxpayer money to select causes included formal applications similar to those used for previous grant programs, state Treasurer David Rousseau testified yesterday in the corruption trial of former Sen. Wayne Bryant.
His statements painted a picture of a program with more supervision than previously described in the trial, although he later said the Treasury Department generally checked only "minor issues" related to the awards.
Rousseau, questioned by Bryant's attorney, also said state budgets approved early this decade by New Jersey Republicans had included grants similar to the one prosecutors allege Bryant abused.
A key difference the GOP has highlighted is that its awards were listed in the state budget for review before a vote, while the money Bryant controlled was doled out long after the budget was approved and without a formal vote or debate.
Bryant, a once-powerful Camden County Democrat who chaired the Senate budget committee, is accused, among other charges, of steering a $200,000 grant to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in exchange for a low-show job that boosted his pension.
The grant program has become a key part of the trial and an explosive topic at the Statehouse after testimony confirmed the money was largely controlled by lawmakers who in 2005 and 2006 directed $120 million to select groups, even though the grants were part of the Treasury Department. The sponsors were kept secret until last week.
But in his second trip to the stand during the trial, Rousseau said grant recipients had to fill out forms. It was "a traditional state application form used for this program" and others like it, he said.
In taking aim at the program, defense attorney Carl Poplar appeared to have two goals: to show that grants controlled by lawmakers are not new or rare in New Jersey, and to show that these were supervised and not just given at Bryant's whim.
The debate has had reverberations in the trial and in New Jersey politics. Accusations have flown back and forth between Republicans, who say the program, with its hidden sponsors, was a new, more opaque form of handing out government pork, and Democrats, who argue that both parties gave out spoils and say they cleaned up the system to make it transparent.
According to Rousseau, the so-called MAC account instituted by Democrats worked like this:
Lawmakers included $88 million in the state budget for the grants in fiscal 2005 and $40 million in 2006. The money was listed as the Property Tax Assistance and Community Development program, with no recipients specified.
Later, Rousseau said, lawmakers privately decided who would get the money and sent lists of awards to the Treasury Department. Democratic lawmakers held the reins, though they shared with some Republicans. Recently released documents show that some lobbyists, political fund-raisers and key aides also had a say.
Once Treasury got the plans, it sent a list of recipients to the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, and the selections became public. The committee, controlled by Democrats and chaired by Bryant, could have vetoed the awards but never took up the issue, other than to vote on technicalities.
After 10 days without a committee vote, the awards were deemed approved.
Then Treasury sent out applications that the grant recipients had to fill out and return, including an explanation of how the money would be used. Bryant's defense team showed one such form. Those who did not respond did not get their grants.
Did Treasury staff "review the applications?" Poplar asked.
"Yes," Rousseau said.
Under cross-examination, however, Rousseau confirmed that the applications had been sent only after lawmakers chose the recipients.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra reminded Rousseau that he had testified earlier that he had "very little discretion" over the program.
Once the selections were made, "you vetted certain minor issues. Is that correct?" Marra asked.
"Yes," Rousseau said.
Poplar also pointed to hundreds of millions of dollars in grant programs in fiscal 2001 and 2002, when Republicans led state government. Rousseau said those awards also had been controlled by legislators.
They were listed in the budget when a vote was taken.
A parade of 11 character witnesses followed Rousseau, all South Jersey residents who testified that Bryant had a reputation for honesty and abiding the law.