Get me Rewrite: Many reporters had hand in ‘MAC accounts’

Playing off Thursday’s Philadelphia Inquirer headline, New Jersey’s newspapers can’t exactly wash their hands of the “business as usual” culture that allowed the so-called ‘MAC account’ to flourish for two years.

If you look at past news stories about the MAC accounts, a.k.a. Property Tax Assistance and Community Development Fund, the coverage did not exactly live up to Woodward and Bernstein standards.

Case in point. Daily reporting coming out of Wayne Bryant’s federal corruption trial would now leave readers to believe that nobody in state government had final responsibility for overseeing the distribution of more than $120 million in ad hoc budget funds. That’s contrary to how it was once reported.

At times over the last two weeks, the testimony offered by one witness even contradicted what he had previously told reporters.

So it raises the question, how was the slush fund characterized by the press in past reporting?

Who controlled the funds?

Starting with the Inkie, it originally reported the highlights of the state budget included: “$40 million in ‘property-tax assistance and community-development grants’ to be distributed at the discretion of the administration” (July 3, 2005). But in the same story, it also reported how monies for Atlantic City resulted from some good ol’fashion horse trading of local grants in exchange for budget votes, according to one of its quoted sources.

And so the reporting went. No one in the press actually followed the money trail.

The Press of Atlantic City simply gave credit to Bill Gormley and Frank Blee for drawing down “more than $1 million in new state aid” for two local school districts from the fund (August 5, 2006). It was the third time in two years the Press had reported about new funds flowing to Gormley’s school districts. There was never any mention about how the legislators ended up with the discretionary monies.

When the Daily Record reported how a freeze placed on the funds by Jon Corzine would hurt a local Head Start program, it also reported the grant “was included in the 2005 state budget by then-Gov. Richard Codey, who told Head Start officials last year at the organization's annual reception that he and Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Boonton, had discussed the grant” (June 15, 2006).

What happened to the frozen grant money?

Stories about the “permanent freeze” and its impact on local grantees were published in newspapers up and down the state during April and May of 2006 including the Courier Post, the Burlington County Times, the Herald News, the Ocean County Observer, the Press of Atlantic City, The Record, the Asbury Park Press, and the Star Ledger.

The Burlington County Times even editorialized how the frozen slush fund “raises the troubling question: Who's watching your money?” in a May 2006 opinion piece. But then the paper never followed up on whether any of the frozen grants later received funding in a Corzine budget.

Few newspapers did — even though most ran the AP story that raised the question: “Though Corzine was not involved in approving any of the funds, his decision to stop the state from writing checks effectively means that about 350 organizations and municipalities will have to find money elsewhere” (May 5, 2006).

So did they?

To be fair, many newspapers ran “no comments”, “did not respond to questions” or “not available for comment” statements whenever they got close to nailing down how the fund operated.

How the stories changed.

The Ledger and APP got close to figuring out the real story beginning in late 2006. One news account by the APP in January 4, 2006 quoted Treasury sources with calling the so-called MAC accounts “a pre-approved legislative list”, while an in-the-know Senate witness in Bryant’s ongoing corruption trial told the paper something very different at the time.

In 2006, the APP wrote: George LeBlanc, the Senate Democrats' budget director, said lawmakers provide input but that the state treasurer ultimately decides on the grants. “To say that the Treasury did what the Legislature wanted, I think, would be a bit of an overstatement," LeBlanc said. “These are things that the legislators have advocated for."

As we all know now, the Ledger reported that LeBlanc recently testified that the obscure state budget account “was parceled out directly to individual lawmakers for them to spend on pet projects”.

The recent APP story following LeBlanc’s revelations focused only on how his testimony may spill over into New Jersey’s two open congressional races. No mention about how its one-time source changed the storyline from legislative advocacy to what’s now being reported as an “automated teller machine that dispensed tax money to lawmakers.”

Too bad no one in the press unearthed the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth story before it played itself out in a federal court room. It may have won someone a Pulitzer. Get me Rewrite: Many reporters had hand in ‘MAC accounts’