County continues to ‘award’ Birdsall

Despite ongoing investigation and a guilty plea, county gives contracts to consulting firm

The former marketing director of an engineering consulting firm that has ongoing lucrative contracts with the county pleaded guilty recently for his role in a pay-to-play scheme to circumvent state campaign finance laws.

Phillip Angarone, 40, who previously worked for Birdsall Services Group, admitted that from the time he joined the firm in 2008, he circumvented the state’s pay-to-play law intended to stop contractors and vendors from getting lucrative government work in return for political favors.

The former marketing director told the State Attorney General’s Office he and other employees participated in a corrupt scheme to evade New Jersey’s pay-to-play law.

The law was enacted to ensure political contributions did not improperly influence the awarding of contracts. Which in this case, they did.

“Illegal corporate contributions like those in this case undermine the fair and open contracting process needed to ensure that government agencies strictly serve the public interest, not the interests of politically connected firms,” said Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said.

The county, which has continued to contract with Birdsall on a regular basis, last week awarded the engineering firm three additional contracts totaling $653,000.

The contracts included services for replacement of the East Hazelwood Avenue bridge for $564,984, environmental well monitoring and remedial activities for a complex in Westfield for $74,950 and environmental remediation for Miesel Park in Springfield for $13,350.

At the Nov. 29 freeholder meeting, Garwood resident Bruce Paterson approached the microphone during the public portion suggesting the county was involved with pay-to-play because many consulting firms doing work for the county were also Democrat contributors. To support this, he brought up the fact the board approved contracts to consulting firms that evening totaling $1.5 million.

Included was the $653,000 in contracts awarded to Birdsall Services.

Paterson also said he believed the Union County Improvement Authority Executive, Charlotte DeFilippo, chair of the County Democratic Party, was giving out those contracts.

“To me it looks like there is some kind of abuse possibly going on,” he told the freeholders, but admitted he could not prove the allegation.

County Counsel Robert Barry, though, responded saying the county is in “complete compliance” with state pay-to-play legislation, noting that all awards are done through a fair and open process.

“Any allegations to the contrary are not accurate,” the county legal counsel said, adding that the contracts awarded by the county are “exclusively on the recommendation of the county engineer, director of the department of engineers, public works and county manager Al Faella “and no one else.”

Barry pointed out that engineering firms contracting with the county are on a pre-qualified list and there is a competitive process for county work.

Birdsall, according to the State Attorney General’s Office, attempted to avoid the pay-to-play law by making corporate political donations to campaigns and political organizations that would normally have disqualified them from public contracts awarded by certain government agencies.

Had Birdsall made the campaign contributions legally, it would have disqualified them from receiving public contracts.

Angarone admitted that since he joined the firm he began participating in an “previously existing scheme” to avoid the state’s pay-to-play laws.

The former employee said he helped pass bundles of personal checks written by Birdsall employees to various political campaigns. The checks, less than $300 each, were not required by law to be reported to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, or ELEC.

Birdsall, the state attorney general’s office said, would then illegally reimburse these contributors, along with bonus payments, omitting the illegally reimbursed payments in documents filed with ELEC.

“This elaborate scheme continued for years and involved scores of purported personal contributions that were under the $300 reporting threshold.

In October 2010 Birdsall was slapped with an 18-month suspension for violating state’s pay to play laws. The suspension had ties to Union County and specifically, Hillside.

According to Democrat sources with knowledge of this issue’s history, the suspension was the result of two donations, a $1,500 contribution to the Hillside Democratic Organization, a group also chaired by DeFilippo, and a $6,000 contribution to the Piscataway Democratic Organization. Both were a direct violation of the state statute prohibiting political contributions from state vendors like Birdsall.

Although the engineering consulting firm appealed the suspension to the Department of Treasury, it was denied and the state treasurer eventually upheld the suspension.

In May, Birdsall offices were searched by State Attorney General’s Office investigators, who removed computers and files from the premises.

In 2011, Birdsall donated nearly $130,000 to various campaigns, and received $28 million in contracts throughout the state.

Among the hundreds of donations made by Birdsall Services Group over the years to Democratic political campaigns in Union County include $2,750 between 2008 and 2011 to Democrat Sen. Ray Lesniak; $48,000 for Democrat freeholder candidates from 2009 through 2011; $1,500 to the Hillside Democratic club in 2010; $2,500 to the reelection campaign of County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi; $2,500 to the campaign of Ralph Froehlich for Union County Sheriff; and $7,800 to the Union County Democratic Committee.

The attorney general said “our investigation into alleged illegal corporate political contributions on behalf of Birdsall Services Group is continuing.”