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Public Has 'Right to Know' Birdsall Election Contributions, Dem Says

Monmouth County still has active contracts with Birdsall Services Group, a firm that is under investigation for skirting the state’s pay-to-play laws

A Democratic freeholder candidate called on Monmouth County government to disclose information on campaign contributions made by Birdsall Services Group and its employees that were under the state-legislated reportable threshold.

“The history of Republicans’ rule in Monmouth County is one of corruption and scandal,” Brian Froelich of Spring Lake said at the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting Thursday.

The exchange between Froelich and the freeholders came at a sensitive time, just more than one week before the 2013 primary elections.

The freeholder Republican primary will be contested as four candidates, including incumbents Director Thomas A. Arnone and Deputy Director Serena DiMaso, vie for two open seats. Froelich will be on the ballot for the uncontested Democratic primaries. 

‘Right to know’

Birdsall, a Monmouth County-based engineering firm, is under investigation for skirting the state’s pay-to-play laws by allegedly reimbursing its employees for their personal, unreportable political contributions.

The firm has engineering contracts with a host of Shore-area communities, which in turn were served subpoenas for their business with Birdsall.

Instead of Birdsall making corporate political contributions to campaigns and political organizations that would disqualify it from public contracts awarded by certain government agencies, shareholders and employees of the firm allegedly made personal political contributions of $300 or less, which are deemed unreportable, according to the attorney general's office.

In March, the state's Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau obtained a nine-count state grand jury indictment charging Birdsall Services Group and several employees and shareholders.

“Birdsall has historically been a significant contributor to county Republicans,” Froelich said Thursday. “Birdsall has received millions in contracts from Monmouth County approved by these Freeholder members.”

But donations made under the publicly reportable amount are hidden from public scrutiny, he said.

“Each freeholder here has the actual detailed non-public record of such donations. The very information that Birdsall was trying to hide from the public,” Froelich said. “The citizens and voters of Monmouth County have the right to know specifically the number and amount of donations, if any, each freeholder has received in any form directly or indirectly from Birdsall and employees for the last six years.”

County is ‘moving forward’

Froelich’s comments were allegations and the matter is not just a Republican issue, Arnone said at Thursday’s meeting.

Arnone reports donations in the state-required election form, he said.

“If there was anything there that I was asked to show, I would,” he said. “I would ask all 53 municipalities, Democratic and Republicans, to do the same.”

According to records of monetary contributions made to Arnone, of the $62,702 in contributions for the 2010 general election and the $52,645 in donations for the 2013 primary, none came directly from Birdsall.

The same goes for Deputy Director Serena DiMaso. Of the $14,949 in contributions for the 2010 general election and $2,191 for the 2013 primaries, none came from Birdsall.

“Freeholders comply with statutory requirements,” County Counsel Andrea Bazer said to Froelich Thursday. “You’re talking about Birdsall and that’s fine but there are indictments. There have been no allegations rendered with anyone in Monmouth County.”

Monmouth County complied with subpoena requests months ago and have received some documents back in the last couple of weeks, spokesperson Laura Kirkpatrick said.

The county follows New Jersey’s Pay-to-Play Law, which was enacted in 2006.

Originally, the county followed its own pay-to-play ordinance but has since deferred back to the state. According to Kirkpatrick, there had been confusion amongst vendors and the Freeholders determined the County would follow state law in 2012 due to a “consistency issue.”

Under state law, businesses are prohibited from being awarded a local contract with a value in excess of $17,500 if they contributed more than $300 to a candidate’s campaign within the preceding year.

‘Scrutinized and above reproach’

At the time of the Birdsall indictment, Monmouth County had 10 open contracts with the firm in the amount of $1.617 million, Kirkpatrick said. Some were multiple year contracts and are still open while others expired earlier in 2013. They were each awarded under a competitive bid process, she said.

“The county isn’t awarding new contracts to Birdsall but we still have a couple in place,” she said.

The county’s Purchasing Department is “more than competent” and has been “scrutinized and above reproach,” Bazer said. Contracts and requests for proposals are “appropriately handled.”

Committees that were not sat upon by any of the Freeholders evaluated requests for proposals for contracts that Birdsall was ultimately rewarded, said Gerri Popkin, director of the Purchasing Department.

“My department takes strong exception to any innuendo or accusation of any possible tie in with political contributions and the operation of the procurement process of Monmouth County,” said Popkin, who has worked in the Purchasing Department for 26 years. “There has never been a problem in our division and there will never be while I am sitting there.”

In every investigation of the department, the County has been found to be in compliance and properly handled procurement, she said.

The Monmouth County Freeholders do everything “upstanding,” Arnone said, adding that he knows the integrity that each member has.

“You might not want to believe that,” Arnone said to Froelich. “But if you ever challenge my integrity, be prepared to get an answer back.”

The board had a hand in putting former Brookdale Community College President Peter Burnham behind bars, Freeholder John P. Curley said. Burnham pleaded guilty to two counts of official misconduct and one count of theft by deception after he used credit cards issued to him by the college to purchase more than $10,000 worth of items.

“I am very proud of my board. We work so hard daily to be so transparent,” Arnone said. “I have probably the best four people sitting next to me. I’ll do what the state asks me to do." 

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