A former partner at one of New Jersey's most prominent law firms is accused of paying $192,000 to a state senator in exchange for legislation and other favors intended to benefit the attorney's land-developer clients.
An indictment announced Monday charges that Eric Wisler, while a partner at DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole in Teaneck, made regular payments from 2004 through 2006 to Sen. Wayne Bryant, D-Camden, in return for Bryant's influence in the Legislature.
Bryant, who left office in 2008 upon his conviction of unrelated bribery and fraud charges and is serving a four-year sentence, is charged with 20 counts of mail fraud, and one count each of accepting bribery and extortion for his alleged role in the arrangement with Wisler.
Wisler is charged with a total of 37 counts of mail and wire fraud, as well as one count of offering a bribe.
Authorities say Wisler, as lead counsel to brownfields redeveloper EnCap Golf Holdings and parent company Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, N.C., used client money to pay $8,000 in monthly fees to Bryant's law firm, Zeller & Bryant in Camden. The payments supposedly were for legal work on EnCap's Meadowlands redevelopment project.
But the indictment says the payments were in reality consideration for Bryant using his office to help secure millions for Wisler's clients through legislation and other advantages, and that Wisler corresponded regularly with Bryant and other political insiders on requests for legislative action and inaction and even helped write proposed legislation.
Wisler did not inform anyone at DeCotiis about the arrangement, and he and Bryant took steps to conceal it, creating phony invoices indicating that Zeller & Bryant was doing legal work in exchange for the payments, the indictment says, but Zeller & Bryant did no legal work and no DeCotiis attorneys interacted with Zeller & Bryant about such an agreement.
Bryant, as Senate Budget Committee chairman, "provided a consistent vote for legislation that was favorable to Wisler's clients," according to the indictment. That included Bryant's support of a 2004 amendment to the Redevelopment Area Bond Financing Law allowing for more than $200 million in loans from the state to EnCap for a Meadowlands project, in which EnCap, through a subsidiary corporation, agreed to remediate several hundred acres of landfill in Lyndhurst, North Arlington and Rutherford for construction of a golf course, and for residential and retail space. The commission terminated the agreement in 2008 after EnCap failed to finish the remediation.
The Wisler-Bryant arrangement allegedly touched other EnCap redevelopment proposals, including a $1.2 billion eminent domain plan in the Cramer Hill section of Camden, in Bryant's legislative district, and a waterfront brownfields redevelopment on Petty's Island in Pennsauken.
Wisler's attorney, Michael Critchley of Critchley, Kinum & Vazquez in Roseland, said in a statement that Wisler "vehemently denies the allegations."
"Eric never solicited, received or expected to receive any inappropriate consideration from Wayne Bryant in his role as a public official," Critchley said. "The relationship with Wayne Bryant's law firm was solely in the context of providing potential legal services and not in any way associated with Wayne Bryant's role as a public official."
According to Critchley, Wisler continues treatment for colorectal and other forms of cancer and "will strive to the best of his physical ability to prove his innocence and maintain his impeccable reputation for honesty and integrity both in his personal and professional life."
DeCotiis is cooperating with prosecutors but declines comment on the matter "out of respect and concern for our former partner who is entitled to a constitutional presumption of innocence," according to a prepared statement by Kerrie Campbell, counsel to the firm.
Bryant's lawyer, Cherry Hill solo Carl Poplar, did not return a call.
Wisler began practicing in 1983 and in 1987 was a founding partner of Kraft & McManimon in Newark. In 1991, he left to form a public-finance practice at DeCotiis & Pinto in Hackensack, later known as DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole.
In 2002 Wisler became a name partner and helped form the firm's bond counsel practice. He went on medical leave in 2008 while undergoing cancer treatment and left the firm in 2009.
Wisler and Bryant could each face up to 20 years in prison if convicted; up to 10 if convicted of bribery alone. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of the money supposedly paid to Bryant.
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is acting prosecutor in the case.
Paul Fishman, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, recused from the investigation on taking office in 2009. According to a statement from his office, Fishman, while at Friedman Kaplan Seiler Adelman in Newark, represented EnCap in 2007 in connection with investigations of the company by the New Jersey inspector general, the state Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office.