Law & Justice

Birdsall Executive from New Brunswick Pleads Guilty, Faces Jail Time for Pay-to-Play

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James Johnston of New Brunswick is staring down less than a year in jail after pleading guilty for his role in Birdsall Services Group's pay-to-play scheme.
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — A city resident and former executive of Birdsall Services Group, the engineering firm that closed in the wake of a sweeping pay-to-play scheme, will likely serve jail time.

James Johnston, 55, pleaded guilty today, April 12, to a fourth-degree charge of “making prohibited corporate political contributions” on behalf of Birdsall, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. Birdsall’s employees made donations in their names to dodge a law that aims to make sure public contracts are doled out fairly by putting limits on political contributions, according to the state.

The move means Johnston’s slated to serve 270 days in county jail and forfeit $93,720. Furthermore, he’s set to face a 10-year ban from bidding on public contracts in the state or owning a stake of 5 percent or greater in a company that makes such bids, according to the announcement.

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Johnston, who was the president of Birdsall’s environmental services group, copped to the charge before state Superior Court Judge James Den Uyl in Ocean County, according to the state.

He pleaded guilty alongside Robert Gerard, a 56-year-old Wall resident and Birdsall’s chief marketing officer, who admitted to the same charge. Gerard is expected to serve the same jail sentence and pay $86,200 to the state, according to the attorney general’s office.

Johnston and Gerard are the most recent of eight former Birdsall executives, shareholders and managers—and the company itself—to plead guilty in the matter.

“The many guilty pleas we have secured in this case hammer home an important message that criminal schemes aimed at evading New Jersey’s pay-to-play law will be met with stern punishment,” state Attorney General Christopher Porrino, said in a statement.  “Our law prevents politically connected firms from garnering public contracts based on campaign contributions, but Birdsall’s executives gamed the system and secured millions of dollars in contracts for which they should have been disqualified.”

The charges against Johnston and Gerard stemmed from a March 2013 indictment. That followed an investigation by state corruption-busters who alleged that Birdsall higher-ups conspired to flood campaign war chests with more than $1 million in illegal donations, according to the state.

Several people affiliated with Birdsall made political contributions of $300 or less to various campaigns, according to the state. Donations of that size don’t need to be reported.

If Birdsall had directly made the contributions, the company would’ve been barred from receiving any number of public contracts, according to the state.

The schemers compiled batches of personal checks at Birdsall, sent them to campaigns and political organizations and then were reimbursed by the company, the state alleged. The firm then declined to note those reimbursements on election law documents and with contract-awarding government agencies, according to the state.

State investigators claimed that the conspiracy lasted for more than six years.

“By criminally prosecuting this firm and its executives, we have given the law real teeth,” Elie Honig, director of the state Division of Criminal Justice, said in a statement.

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