TRENTON - Former State Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, once one of the most powerful politicians in New Jersey, was convicted yesterday on 12 counts of selling his influence for personal gain.
In more than 25 years in public life, the Camden County Democrat rose to iconic status in Trenton and his home district, only to become the latest politician sullied by a corruption conviction.
Following the verdict, U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie called Bryant's conduct "the most reprehensible" and "disgusting" he had seen.
"Wayne Bryant is a disgrace, and [he] is now a federal felon headed for prison, which is where he belongs," he said. "It is an absolute abomination that Wayne Bryant ever held a position of authority and prominence."
Bryant's conviction also could resonate loudly in the halls of power. His lawyers argued that not only were his actions legal, but they were common - the way politics gets done in New Jersey.
Despite those arguments and nine weeks of testimony to consider, the jurors returned their decision after only 13 hours of deliberations, over three days.
The jury also convicted Bryant's codefendant, R. Michael Gallagher, on six of the seven counts he faced.
Bryant was stoic as the verdicts were announced, and he declined to comment to reporters as security officers led him from the courtroom.
Bryant attorney Carl Poplar said his client handled the verdict "with dignity."
"The guy has a lot of dignity," he said.
The judge allowed Bryant and Gallagher to remain free on bond until sentencing, scheduled for March 20.
Bryant is 61, and the convictions most likely will close the book on his long career, which began with his election as a Camden County freeholder in 1980.
Bryant joined the state Assembly in 1982 and became a senator in 1995, eventually rising to chair the powerful Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
When he was indicted last year, he was the first sitting legislator to face federal charges in recent history. He did not run for reelection in 2007.
Bryant and Gallagher could face lengthy sentences - as much as 15 years, by the government's estimate.
The verdicts also served as the coda for Christie, who announced Monday that he would be resigning on Dec. 1.
Christie, a perennial GOP gubernatorial favorite, boasted yesterday of his record of 132 convictions of public officials, with no acquittals. He declined to discuss a possible run for governor.
"Have some patience and give me some time to make a reasoned, smart decision about my future," he said.
Christie, who has urged the public in his speeches to elect better leaders, characterized yesterday's verdicts as another sign that citizens have tired of "public officials ripping them off."
"They're tired of people like Wayne Bryant, who hide behind the offices they hold to enrich themselves," he said.
In Bryant's career, he was credited with steering millions to South Jersey, and many of his colleagues praised him as a whiz at the complicated state budget process.
Among his highlights, Bryant helped to engineer the 2002 Camden recovery act, which poured $175 million into the battered city.
But prosecutors said he used his powerful perch and budget acumen to help himself.
In late 2002, Bryant solicited a job from Stuart Cook, then president of the public University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). Prosecutors termed it a "shakedown."
Gallagher, the former dean of the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, then rigged a hiring process to give Bryant a job. The school is one of UMDNJ's campuses.
During the years of his employment, from 2003 to 2006, Bryant steered $10.5 million to the osteopathic school, and lobbied on its behalf in other matters.
Prosecutors noted that he had done nothing to help the school before going on its payroll.
Bryant was paid a $35,000 salary and given a $5,000 bonus one year. This, prosecutors said, despite the fact that he showed up on campus just one morning a week and spent most of his time there reading the newspaper and talking on the phone.
Bryant also was convicted on pension-fraud counts related to two public jobs he held - one at the osteopathic school and another as an attorney for the Gloucester County Board of Social Services.
Prosecutors said he did little to no work in either job, both of which contributed to his state retirement plan.
At his job for the social services board, Bryant sent young associates from his law firm to cover for him, even though Bryant had been hired, not his firm. From 2002 to late 2006, Bryant worked fewer than 15 hours for the board, while his associates clocked more than 3,800 hours.
Bryant's attorneys argued the senator was not responsible for some of the money directed to the school. In other cases when he helped the school, they said, he was merely doing his job as a senator.
Christie called the defense's business-as-usual argument "smoke and mirrors."
"Not everybody does it," he said.
The defense also said there was no law against lawyers sending associates to cover for their public work, and noted several instances when other lawyers did the same.
Given Bryant's conviction, Christie said anyone who claimed retirement benefits for work he did not perform should contact the state pension board "and make good on it now."
Gallagher, a renowned headache expert, faces another set of charges accusing him of creating phony profits at the school's University Headache Center to earn bonuses.
Those charges were severed from the Bryant case, and Christie said he would consult with his prosecutors and investigators before deciding whether to go to trial on them.
Gallagher attorney Ralph Jacobs said yesterday "there will be an appeal" of his client's convictions. Gallagher did not comment as he left the courtroom.
"It was very difficult for him," Jacobs said.
Poplar also said "we're going to review everything." He didn't have any other comment on the verdicts.
"I don't have any profundance," he said.
The jurors left the courthouse en masse, and the foreman told reporters that they had all agreed not to comment on their deliberations.
Aside from two bribery counts, all the charges against the two men fell under mail-fraud statutes.
Sentencing is based on the amount of the fraud, which could be millions in this case. Prosecutors said that "under certain scenarios" Bryant and Gallagher could face more than 15 years in prison.
Earlier this year, prosecutors asked for a 15- to 20-year term for former state senator and Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who was convicted on corruption charges. But the judge in that case rebuked the U.S. Attorney's Office and gave James 27 months.
Christie said Bryant's actions were the most egregious he had seen because the former senator "stole in plain sight."
"He didn't try to hide his crimes," he said. "He did them in plain sight and said, 'Catch me if you can.' "
Online on Bryant
Join Inquirer reporter Troy Graham online today at 10:30 a.m. to discuss the Bryant trial and verdict.EndText