Recently, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, based out of Newark, has been investigating the entire New Jersey legislature's use of "Christmas Tree" funds, or line items that legislators in New Jersey slip into the state budget at the last minute toward the end of the budget year for special-interest items such as road improvements and school funding in their districts.
They are looking to see if any legislators benefited personally from the grants.
While the state legislative leadership has been subpoenaed on use of these funds, local legislators like Assemblyman and Mayor Brian Stack of Union City have not.
Two weeks ago, a daily newspaper reported that investigators are looking to Stack and his estranged wife Katia Stack, questioning a grant for $100,000 for a Union City day care center run by Katia Stack.
While the city did receive a subpoena related to the day care center, city spokesman Joe Lauro said it is related to another matter.
"They received a state subpoena back last year in December of 2006 served to the city clerk of Union City," said Lauro. "It was asking for information about state grants for Union City, and in there, they did mention the day care. We got the subpoena, we complied with it, and that was the last that we heard about it. The subpoena doesn't say the reason why it was served, and that can really only come from the [state] attorney general's office."
That subpoena was a state, rather than a federal, subpoena.
The $100,000 grant was awarded to the day care center on 47th Street for repairs after a water main break in 2004 badly damaged several classrooms.
A recent Star-Ledger article quoted Stack as saying that the grant "was mostly for capital improvements" and that money going to the day care center would not benefit him personally because he and his wife are separated. The suspicion among the Union City administration is that the subpoena stemmed from a lawsuit that the Mayor of Bogota filed last year against several legislators who hold two elected offices.
"He filed an ethics complaint against over 40 legislators, who were dual officeholders," Lauro said. "One of the complaints was about the Union City day care center [run by Katia Stack], so we don't know if the subpoena emanated from that complaint or not."
City Hall sources also speculated that a recent article published by a local daily newspaper referring to a state grant was referring to a $100,000 grant that was actually awarded to the city of Union City for necessary renovations to Frank X. Clark Day Care Park, which is on the same grounds as the Union City Day Care run by Katia Stack, but does not belong to the center.
The article said that that grant might be under investigation as well, since that item was among Stack's "Christmas tree" items for 2004.
But Lauro said that the city has not been subpoenaed by the federal government about that grant or any other grant, so far.
The federal investigation run by Christopher Christie has been looking at a number of lawmakers including Sen. Wayne Bryant (D-Camden), who once headed the state Senate appropriations committee.
Prosecutors have recently subpoenaed three years of records from the Governor's Office, involving nearly $1 billion in these special interest grants, and several other subpoenas have gone out to the leadership of the State Senate and the General Assembly.
One of those subpoenaed was the man whom Stack wants to oust this June for the Democratic nomination to the state Senate, state Sen. Bernard Kenny of Hoboken. The two are the focus on a political war in the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO).
State legislators under microscope
The "Christmas tree items" are grants typically earmarked for projects in legislators' home districts such as road construction, schools, or non-profit programs, and handed out toward the end of the year. The grants are distributed by lawmakers from both political parties, but investigations began earlier this year questioning whether the money awarded was based on need and not steered towards organizations that would directly benefit the lawmaker or their family.
Calls were not returned to the Reporter from the 47th Street Union City Day Care Center, nor the Attorney General's office.
Jessica Rosero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org