Monday, February 26, 2007

FBI probes $1.25 B in NJ "Christmas Tree" Grants


As federal prosecutors try to dig deeper into the spending practices of New Jersey legislators, they might struggle to identify an elementary piece of any case -- the paper trail.

Senators and Assembly members added more than $1.25 billion in last-minute spending to the state budget in the past five years, agreeing to let taxpayers fund pet projects that typically escape public disclosure or debate.

The so-called "Christmas tree" grants, now the focus of an FBI investigation, dole out money for items ranging from road construction to ball fields to school programs.

But interviews with legislators and other officials and a review of hundreds of Treasury Department documents show the creation of the Christmas tree budget each year is a marvel of old-school politics -- a process that relies more than previously known on a handshake, a nod or a hallway conversation. There is no formal application, no protocol, no public record of where, when or how such grants become budget line items.