Law & Justice

Former South Plainfield Environmental Engineer Gets Jail, Probation for Birdsall Scheme

James Johnston, of New Brunswick, will serve less than a year in jail for his role in Birdsall Services Group's pay-to-play scheme. He was sentenced today, June 2. Credits: Office of the State Attorney General

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — A former contract environmental engineer for South Plainfield who once was an executive for Birdsall Services Group, the engineering firm that closed in the wake of a sweeping pay-to-play scheme, has been sentenced to 270 days in jail and two years of probation, according to an announcement from the state Attorney General.

James Johnston, 55, pleaded guilty on April 12 to a fourth-degree charge of “making prohibited corporate political contributions” on behalf of Birdsall, according to the state. Judge James Den Uyl handed down the sentence today in Ocean County.

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.

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In addition to jail, Johnston must forfeit $93,720 to the state, according to the release.

He’s also barred from bidding on public contracts in the state or owning a stake of 5 percent or greater in a company that makes such bids for 10 years, according to the state.

He was sentenced alongside Robert Gerard, a 56-year-old Wall resident and Birdsall’s chief marketing officer, who admitted to the same charge. Gerard will 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 be sentenced in the corruption case.

“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,” Attorney General Christopher S. 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 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.

The attorney general recently announced two anti-corruption programs, one of which offers an award of up to $25,000 and the other a shot at amnesty for tips about public corruption. Portion urged possible beneficiaries and whistleblowers to take advantage of the programs, which are due to expire on Aug. 1.

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