With less than a month before voters go to the polls in the hyper-competitive 3rd and 7th congressional districts, Republicans unleashed what is likely to be their theme for the remainder of the campaign: tying Democratic State Sen. John Adler and Assemblywoman Linda Stender to a controversial program that they characterize as a slush fund.
Medford Mayor Chris Myers, who's running against Adler in the 3rd District, stood with Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson and provided documentation that Adler and Stender both helped municipalities in their districts apply for the Property Tax Assistance and Community Developments grants program – known to insiders as the "MAC account" – that were not publicized beforehand, and were allegedly handed out in a non-transparent way.
Myers alleged that Adler – contrary to his denial that he had any influence over the way the funds were used – was belied by letters written by the Haddonfield borough administrator, the Haddon Township police chief and the Cherry Hill mayor, who all wrote that they were made aware of available grant money from the program through Adler's office.
"Welcome to John Adler's Trenton. It's a culture of corruption," said Myers. "I was just appalled – I'm not a creature of Trenton. I'm a small town mayor."
The program has reemerged as a hot issue after George LeBlanc, a state senate Democratic budget aide, testified about it last week.
Neither Myers nor Wilson took issue specifically with where the grants were awarded, though they did mention that Adler's wife is a councilwoman in Cherry Hill, which received some of the grants, and that two of his law partners are public officials in Haddonfield. Instead, they said, the problem was the process itself – that there was no public notice of the funds' availability, leaving Adler free to hand them out based on politics rather than need.
"Why does a town like Cherry hill get help and a town like Vineland doesn't?," said Wilson. "Only one thing was at play here: Politics. Partisan politics."
In Adler's legislative district in 2005, Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt wrote to former State Treasurer John McCormac requesting $10,000 in renovation money for the local community center based on "conversations that I have had with Senator John Adler." Haddon Township Chief Joseph Gallagher requested two digital cameras for police cars "with regard to the $10,000 grant which became available this past Friday…. by John Adler's office." And Haddonfield Borough Administrator Richard Schwab wrote to Adler's office responding to his "notice of available of $10,000 in State Grant funds."
"He swayed influence, and he doled this money out personally to his friends," said Myers. "That's not the way taxpayer money should be spent."
Wilson provided copies of eight requests made from Linda Stender's office for a total of $310,000 in funds from the program to Union County and several of her legislative district's towns, which ranged from $10,000 to $100,000 each.
Lance, while not present at the press conference, issued a statement condemning Stender's involvement.
"Linda Stender's participation in this scheme to the tune of $300,000 is politics of the worst kind – secretive, illegal, completely political and all done at taxpayer expense," he said.
"Neither John Adler nor Linda Stender ever stood up and said ‘Stop. This is wrong,'" said Wilson, who noted that Stender secured money for Union County while working for a county-run hospital and equated it with Bryant having steered $200,000 of the money to his own employer at UMDNJ.
"How is that different that what Wayne Bryant did? I don't think it is," he said.
Wilson also said that Gov. Jon Corzine bears part of the blame, even though he ended the program shortly after taking office in 2006. None of the participants, he said, were held to account.
Democrats responded by pointing out that U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton – Myers' political mentor – secured $25 million for Lockheed Martin, which is a huge employer in the district and employs Myers as an executive. There's nothing wrong with that, they said, but used the example to demonstrate that the Republicans' charges were hypocritical.
"Mayor Myers seems to have no problem with Congressman Saxton's earmarks for Lockheed Martin," said Adler Campaign Manager Mark Warren. "John Adler had no oversight or influence over the Property Tax Relief and Community Development grant program… This is Mayor Myers trying to create a political issue and rake John Adler's name through the mud."
Stender defended the grants that she secured, saying that they improved Union County's Web site and allowed towns to set up reverse 911 systems and improve facilities like libraries and little league fields.
"Does Leonard Lance really believe communities should not invest in our emergency response systems, libraries and Little League for our children? It is laughable to say grants benefited me or my employer personally since the grant went to the Union County library! I had no knowledge of how projects were funded through the Property Tax Fund, nor did I control the funds. Grants were approved by the Treasurer," she said in a statement.
Other Democrats noted that Republican districts got funds from the program too, circulating a list of them. Former State Sen. Bill Gormley’s district benfitted the most out of Republican-controlled ones, getting $1.3 million for the Greater Egg Harbor Township Municipal High School and $1 million for the Atlantic City Medical Center. The funds wound up in the districts of several other GOP legislators as well, including State Senators Joe Kyrillos, Tom Kean, Jr, Gerald Cardinale, and Kevin O’Toole, who questioned McCormac about the program.
Whether the legislators specifically requested the funds is another matter, however.
O'Toole said that the $200,000 in his district was requested by former State Sen. Hank McNamara for his hometown of Wykoff's street scape — money that McNamara had requested in some form or another for years. At the time, he was in the Assembly.
"As a minority assembly ebudget committee, I never asked or put forward a request for MAC funds," he said. "If it was put there, it was through some other means or force.”
Kean said that, while the Paper Mill Playhouse in his district apparently recieved a grant, he didn't request it.
Tom Wilson said that this demonstrates the need for the Treasurer and Governor to reveal exactly where the money came from.
"Simply providing a list of places that got money that were in Republican districts doesn’t necessarily tell you anything," he said.
"I had no control over the distribution of funds," he said.
And while $35,000 was sent to the Ramsey Historical Association in Cardinale's district, Cardinale said he didn't ask for it.
"They may have sent $35,000 to the Ramsey Historical Association, but it was nothing that I designated," he said. “We were never given the opportunity… as a matter of fact, in 2006, I was absolutely in the dog house with Codey. He took away my office.”
Gormley, for his part, did request the money. And he's not sorry. He said that it was for the Pinelands towns that were undergoing growth, and that he never made any secret that he was seeking it.
"Believe me, I’ve been making this argument every ear for 25 years in the budget," he said. "I wanted people to know about it."
In fact, Gormley just attended a ground breaking ceremony at Egg Harbor Township Regional High School, which was the recipient of a $1.3 million grant through the program.
Myers and Lance are both running neck-and-neck with their Democratic opponents, according to recent campaign and non-partisan polling. Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said that this issue could be a game changer-if Republicans sell it right."The public just started reading about this account because of the Bryant trial," he said. "With four weeks to go that's a tough thing to do, but in a tough race that can move just enough voters to swing this race in their direction."
Throughout the race, Myers has appended the words "Trenton politician" to Adler's name, and this issue has given him more opportunity to do so. But Murray noted that his own recent poll showed that barely more voters see Adler as "part of the problem in Trenton" than Myers – 30% to 27%.
And it won't be easy for Lance to take advantage of the issue either. Having been the Senate Minority Leader at the time, he will have to explain to voters why he wasn't on top of the issue at the time.
"This is not a simmering issue he can ignite with this revelation. It's an issue he has to create from scratch in four weeks," said Murray. "But the race is close."