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Panel to look at funds for program wife led

The ethics committee will try to determine whether a conflict existed for a legislator.

TRENTON - A legislative ethics panel yesterday agreed to investigate whether a Hudson County legislator violated conflict-of-interest laws when state grant money was given to a day-care program headed by his estranged wife.

The lawmaker, Democratic Assemblyman Brian Stack, who is also the Union City mayor and a state Senate candidate, said he welcomed the inquiry by the legislative ethics committee.

"I really want the ethics committee to bring me before the committee, bring all the principals before the committee, review all the receipts, review the public bid documents, review exactly where the money went and put this thing to rest once and for all," Stack said.

The panel yesterday also dismissed allegations against 11 legislators who had been accused of benefiting from state grants.

Yet it was unable to approve a new chairman amid partisan bickering that prompted Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) to propose overhauling the panel. He deemed it a "kangaroo court that has become unwieldy, dysfunctional and partisan" and proposed removing legislators from the committee and giving it more authority.

The 16-member committee includes eight legislators and has power to levy penalties ranging from a reprimand to fines of up to $10,000 to recommending expulsion.

It has punished four lawmakers in its 34 years - three reprimands and a $200 fine.

With yesterday's dismissals, only complaints against Stack and Sen. Wayne Bryant (D., Camden) remain pending before the panel. The complaints were filed by Republican Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan.

Stack's estranged wife heads Union City Day Care, which has received at least two $100,000 state grants in recent years.

"I don't know what could be more of a personal interest than a $100,000 grant to your wife's operation of a center," said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), an ethics panel member.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski argued the money went only to the nonprofit that employs Stack's wife.

"I don't believe that there's anything in front of this committee that shows there was direct monetary gain by Assemblyman Stack," said Wisniewski (D., Middlesex).

The panel delayed action on Bryant, the former Senate budget chairman charged with bringing state money to a state school in exchange for a no-work job, and using that and other jobs to triple his publicly funded pension. Bryant has pleaded not guilty. Bryant's case sparked an inquiry into whether lawmakers have benefited from the last-minute grants inserted into the budget without public review.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie subpoenaed documents from the Corzine administration, 11 Democratic lawmakers including Stack, and two Republican legislative leaders. Documents also have been subpoenaed from West New York, where former Assembly Speaker Albio Sires was mayor. Sires is now a congressman.

Everyone subpoenaed has denied wrongdoing.

The subpoenas seek documents going back to 2004, when Democrats took control of the Legislature, but two county Democratic Party chairmen filed ethics complaints yesterday against seven Republicans, expressing outrage that questions raised about grants haven't extended to when Republicans controlled the Legislature.

"The full picture captures a lot of Republicans doing the same things they and their party colleagues are now criticizing," Burlington County Democratic Party chairman Rick Perr said.

Republicans scoffed at the allegations.

"These complaints are nothing more than a pathetic attempt by the Democrat machine to divert attention away from the fact that a laundry list of Democrats is being investigated by the FBI and U.S. attorney for using their office to enrich themselves," said Tom Wilson, the state Republican Party chairman.