Former State Sen. Wayne Bryant of Camden County cannot use his remaining campaign money to pay legal bills from his corruption trial, an appellate court ruled yesterday.
The decision upholds a January opinion from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), which told Bryant that using campaign dollars for his criminal defense was not an "ordinary and necessary" expense that comes with holding office.
Bryant recently was convicted of corruption charges related to trading his influence over the state budget for "low-show" public jobs that boosted his pension.
In asking to use more than $600,000 in campaign money to pay for his defense, Bryant's attorneys argued that other New Jersey public officials have been able to use political dollars to defend themselves against public accusations and that federal laws allow such uses.
But the court unanimously said other officials were responding to accusations that could be seen as political attacks, not criminal charges. The judges also ruled that New Jersey's regulations clearly differ from federal laws.
At least two other former state senators charged with corruption, Sharpe James and Joseph Coniglio, have used campaign funds for their legal bills, but neither sought ELEC permission, as Bryant did. ELEC Executive Director Frederick Herrmann said the Bryant opinion was the only one the commission was asked to render.
Bryant has used his campaign money, however, to pay lawyers to fight the decision that he cannot use that same money for his criminal defense team.
Campaign finance reports through Oct. 15 show that he has spent $56,600 on lawyers arguing against ELEC this year. His campaign paid $4,800 in last year 2007 for the same cause, before ELEC made its first ruling.
An additional $5,685 in spending this year is labeled "taxes" and paid to the bank that holds his campaign account, according to reports filed with the state.
As of Oct. 15, Bryant's campaign fund held about $604,000. The money can still be given out in political contributions.
James continued to dole out money to candidates even after his own corruption conviction.
Asked about spending campaign money to fight an ELEC opinion, Herrmann said he did not want to comment on specifics of a particular case. He said the spending on "taxes" did not appear to raise an issue because it does not appear to be for a personal use, which is barred.
Bryant attorney Robert Zoller said no one had raised an issue about using campaign money to argue that campaign money can be spent on a legal defense.
He said he had not yet decided if he would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Herrmann said ELEC was pleased with the decision and would review the ruling, which recommends creating clear guidelines for using campaign money for criminal cases instead of deciding on a case-by-case basis.
Sen. Bill Baroni (R., Mercer) said the ruling shows the need to pass a law that would let the attorney general seize campaign funds from convicted officials.