NEWARK – Former state Senator Wayne Bryant and attorney Eric D. Wisler, a former partner in the politically-connected law firm DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick & Cole, were indicted Monday on multiple counts of fraud and bribery.
Bryant, currently serving time for corruption charges, represented New Jersey’s Fifth Legislative district, which includes Camden, and was chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. He was also a partner in a Cherry Hill law firm.
The indictment alleges that Wisler arranged for his firm to enter into a retainer agreement with Bryant’s firm in 2004, which called for Bryant’s firm to be paid a retainer fee of $8,000 per month. The payment was purportedly to cover fees for legal work relating to land use, condemnation, and other matters for a development project in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
The indictment alleges that the payments made under the retainer agreement were actually bribes in exchange for official action that Bryant took in favor of the various redevelopment projects undertaken by Wisler and his clients, including a proposed $1.2 billion redevelopment of Camden’s Cramer Hill neighborhood, which sat in Bryant’s legislative district.
Bryant rendered his approval and support for this project despite significant opposition from his constituents regarding the use of eminent domain and relocation of residents in that neighborhood. Bryant also expressed support for funding from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and Camden’s Economic Recovery Board, whose function was to allocate $175 million in funding that Camden received under the 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act (“MRERA”), which Bryant sponsored.
Bryant provided a consistent vote for legislation that was favorable to Wisler’s clients, the indictment alleges. As an example, it cites a 2004 amendment to the Redevelopment Area Bond Financing Law that facilitated bond financing for the Meadowlands project, appropriations legislation by which the Meadowlands project received more than $200 million in loans from the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust (“NJEIT”) and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”), and “fast-track” legislation that required the NJDEP and other state agencies to expedite their review of applications for permits or have those permits deemed granted. Bryant also sponsored a bill in 2005 for a $112 million loan from NJEIT to be used for the Meadowlands project.
Bryant’s firm was paid approximately $192,000 in fees between August 2004 and August 2006. However, no actual legal work was performed under the retainer agreement, the indictment alleges. No attorneys at Bryant’s firm performed any services under the retainer agreement, and no attorneys at Wisler’s firm interacted with attorneys of Bryant’s firm with respect to the Meadowlands Project, the indictment charges.
According to the indictment, both Wisler and Bryant took steps to conceal the existence of the retainer agreement. Despite working extensively with colleagues at his law firm on a variety of matters pertaining to the Cramer Hill and Meadowlands developments, Wisler allegedly failed to inform any of them about the existence of the retainer agreement.
In addition, the indictment alleges that Wisler and Bryant caused false invoices to be drafted that fraudulently indicated that Bryant’s firm was performing legal services under the retainer agreement. These invoices formed the basis for alleged false and fraudulent billings to the Raleigh investment firm by which it paid the retainer fees to Bryant’s firm through Wisler’s firm.
The indictment charges Bryant and Wisler with 20 counts of honest services mail fraud and one count of receiving bribes. It charges Bryant with extorting payments under color of official right. It also charges Wisler with 17 counts of mail and wire fraud in connection with the false and fraudulent billings to his client.
If convicted, Bryant and Wisler face a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison for each count, except for the receiving bribes charge, for which each faces a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of the approximately $192,000 in illicit payments made to Bryant.
Neither the firm nor any DeCotiis lawyers were named in the indictment. According to a spokesperson, the DeCotiis firm is fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney in the government investigation.
The federal investigation is being supervised by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York due to the recusal of the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. Preet Bharara was named Acting United States Attorney for the case.
Bharara praised the investigative work of the FBI and the Criminal Investigations Division of the IRS in this case. He also thanked the New Jersey Department of Labor and Public Safety, and the Criminal Investigators assigned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey for their outstanding work.
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