Hudson County political people reacted harshly to suggestions that they did anything wrong in accepting campaign contributions from Birdsall Services Group. The Eatontown-based engineering services firm came under increased scrutiny in March when the state Attorney General’s Office seized its assets and indicted seven current and former executives on first-degree conspiracy and money-laundering charges. They subsequently pleaded guilty on behalf of the company, agreeing to pay a fine of $1 million and submit to a ten-year ban on public contracts.
Specifically, they were accused of donating money to politicians through proxies, in hopes of getting contracts.
Birdsall was alleged to have had its employees contribute an amount low enough that the person’s name doesn’t have to be listed on campaign finance documents. The amounts from the various employees added up to more than the $300 limit that a company is allowed to contribute to a candidate, by state law.
A The Star-Ledger article published over the weekend was specific about which candidates accepted money from the company or its employees.
The list of those who received campaign contributions reads like a who’s who of Hudson County elected officials, including Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, Freeholder Chairman Anthony Romano, Freeholder Bill O’Dea, Freeholder Jeff Dublin, Hoboken Councilman Tim Occhipinti, Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith, State Sen. Brian Stack, State Sen. Nicholas Sacco, and others.
“I’m the company’s biggest critic,” O’Dea said. “I have no idea why they are giving money to me.” – Bill O’Dea
Mark Albiez, spokesperson for Senator Stack, said Birdsall did no business in Union City. Like many others contacted for this story, he disputed the premise that contributions made to Stack were tainted.
“These were legal contributions,” Albiez said. But like others, he could not comprehend why the company made the contributions.
People connected with the Bayonne Democratic Organization questioned the concept of “illegal” or “secret” contributions.
“If employees are giving to a candidate under $300, how does the candidate know?” one Bayonne official asked. “The onus is on Birdsall, not the politician.”
Birdsall donated to former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III and former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell prior to their being charged in the 2009 federal Bid Rig III operations for accepting bribes.
Romano, Occhipinti, and Dublin said that they had never met anyone from Birdsall.
“I received about $2,000, but some of this came before I was even elected as a freeholder,” Dublin said.
And though Birdsall has done business with Hudson County government, Dublin said he didn’t have a say in the process of selecting the firm.
“If someone comes up to me and wants to do business with the county or wants a job, I directed them to where they need to go,” Dublin said. “There is a process they have to follow and I tell them what that process is.”
Occhipinti got about $300 at a fundraiser in 2010 that was reportedly from Birdsall.
“I’ve done nothing inappropriate,” said Occhipinti.
Romano, who accepted $625 from 2010 to 2011 in preparation for a countywide freeholder election, noted that his accountant and campaign team handle his election accounts, and that he rarely checks the books himself.
“I have been in touch with the county counselor, though,” he said last week. “And he’s assured me that I did nothing wrong.”
Occhipinti, who has sat on the council since 2010, said he has not voted on any Birdsall contracts. The most recent city contract given to Birdsall was in 2009, for work on 1600 Park. Occhipinti says that he often cross-references his campaign donations against upcoming council votes.
“The law is that vendors and professional firms are allowed to contribute, it’s legal,” he said. “But I tend to err on the side of caution. If I see a vote coming up, I’ll return the check.”
Romano said that considering the revelations about how easily a professional firm could find loopholes in the state’s pay-to-play laws, which are meant to prevent private firms from profiting from the elections of specific politicians, the laws might be worth taking a second look at.
“Obviously if there’s an infraction, there’s a cost, and that’s something we should look at,” he said. “If there’s an intent to circumvent the system, obviously I’m against it.”
Occhipinti said that he would consider making a donation to a Hoboken charity in the amount he received from Birdsall.
Generous with contributions
According to the Star-Ledger, Birdsall made upwards of 1,000 contributions worth around $1.05 million around the state from 2008 to early 2012, and during that time received around $84 million in public contracts.
Part of the problem, said some officials in Bayonne and Hoboken, is that candidates aren’t always in charge of raising money and often do not know who is solicited.
“There are lists of known donors that everybody checks out,” said one Bayonne official. “If we see they’ve given money to other campaigns in the past, we send out a letter. Usually, we get a check in the mail buying tickets [to fundraisers].”
Just as often, nobody from the company shows up, officials said.
In Hoboken, former Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons acted as a kind of broker for candidates, taking charge of seeking donations for campaigns, officials there said.
Hoboken Democratic Chairman Jamie Cryan said the problems with the company are not just in Hudson County.
“The company donated to nearly everybody,” he said. “Sometimes a candidate is unaware because fund raising simply sends out letters and invitations to those who they think will support them.”
But in other communities, some fundraising people sign contracts with candidates for a percentage of the total contributions made. These brokers are less scrupulous about who they are seeking, but are acting in a candidate’s name none the less.
Bayonne, North Bergen, and Hudson County did business with Birdsall
Birdsall gave a total of $23,650 in campaign donations to Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith and the Bayonne Regular Democratic Committee between April 2008 and April 2012, according to the Star Ledger.
Despite the generosity to officials in Bayonne, Birdsall never got a contract for work in the city, officials said, although the company did some work for its redevelopment authority at the former Military Ocean Terminal.
In a statement issued by the city of Bayonne, city spokesperson Joseph Ryan said, “There would be no way of knowing that Birdsall Engineering was involved in covertly circumventing campaign finance laws. All of the city of Bayonne’s engineering contracts are always awarded to the lowest responsible proposer following a transparent, competitive process to achieve the best value for our community. While Lynch Giuliano, a Birdsall subsidiary, has served as consulting engineer for the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Agency in the past, that agency is in the process of being dissolved by Mayor Smith.”
Birdsall did some business with North Bergen, officials there said, but as with other places in Hudson County, this came as a result of a bid process.
“No one had any way of knowing if the donations to Nick Sacco were done improperly,” said Sacco spokesperson Paul Swibinski. “Nick said that if it is determined they were, he will donate those funds to a charity or a not-for-profit.”
Perhaps the most puzzling are the donations to O’Dea.
“I’m the company’s biggest critic,” O’Dea said. “I have no idea why they are giving money to me.”
Hudson County, O’Dea said, has given Birdsall a number of projects, but far less than in the early days, after the county began a fair and open system that prequalified a firm and then selected the lowest bid of those firms deemed to be acceptable.
“I’ve always voted against their contract,” O’Dea said. “I wasn’t even aware they were giving it to me most of the time.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.