By John Burton
Howard C. Birdsall, who headed up a large engineering firm and served as chairman of Brookdale Community College’s Board of Trustees, is facing a nine-count grand jury indictment charging that he and others within his firm made illegal political contributions.
Birdsall, a 69-year-old Brielle resident, and six others, face charges ranging from conspiracy, money laundering, tampering with public records or information and making prohibited corporation contributions, among others, according to the state’s Attorney General’s Office.
The indictment alleges that Birdsall, who had been chief executive officer for Birdsall Services Group, headquartered in Eatontown, until his retirement last year – and still the largest shareholder for the engineering firm – along with the other defendants, conspired to circumvent the state’s “Pay-to-Play” restrictions, by having employees and shareholders make political contributions to governmental entities.
Under the state’s restrictions, private companies would be prohibited from getting public contracts from certain government agencies if the companies had given donations to political parties or elected officials associated with those agencies. As a way of getting around those prohibitions, state law enforcement authorities alleged the firm’s members would write out checks for less than $300 and bundle them together at Birdsall Services Group, and forward them on to the various political campaigns and organizations.
Under state election law, individual contributions of $300 or less are not required to be reported to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). The firm allegedly would then reimburse the employees and shareholders by way of bonus payments, and failed to report these contributions to either ELEC or to the government entities, which awarded Birdsall service contracts, according to the attorney general’s office.
The restrictions were put in place to address the long-standing unofficial tradition in this state of what has come to be called “pay-to-play,” where political contributions are made with the tacit understanding that it would put the contributors in good standing to receive government contracts for professional services.
According to ELEC reports for 2011, the most recent year available, Birdsall Services Group received nearly $28.4 million in government public contracts from a wide array of state and county entities from around New Jersey.
Authorities alleged Birdsall made at least $49,808 in the illegally reimbursed contributions. William Birdsall, 64, Manchester, Howard’s brother and the firm’s senior vice president, is alleged to have made at least $74,459 in contributions. Thomas Rospos, 61, Belmar, is charged with making at least $241,000 in contributions.
Alan Hilla Sr., 73, Brielle, executive vice president, allegedly made at least $148,309; Scott MacFadden, 58, Brick, chief administrative officer, allegedly made at least $$77,957; and Robert Gerard, 52, Wall, former chief marketing officer, made at least $48,700, according to authorities.
Two other former employees have pleaded guilty to participating in the alleged scheme in State Superior Court in Ocean County. Those two, authorities said, admitted to making contributions totaling $26,775 and $17,119, respectively.
Howard Birdsall had served on the board of trustees for Brookdale, Monmouth County’s community college, from Nov. 1988 to until he tendered his resignation in May 2011, as he was serving as the board’s president.
Birdsall’s resignation came at a time of intense criticism and controversy for the 11-member board, as it reeled from the allegations that college president Peter Burnham had abused his office and school-issued credit cards for inappropriate expenses. That resulted in Burnham’s guilty plea and five-year prison sentence.