Bribery, Political Corruption, The FBI and The Attorney General in Toms River, Here’s What We Know So Far

TOMS RIVER –  Birdsall Engineering was one of many pay to play and political corruption and bribery scandals to hit Toms River and Ocean County in recent years.  In fact many of the same players involved in the Birdsall bust and other operations such as the three “Operation Bid Rig” criminal investigations and loyalists and beneficiaries of disgraced former Toms River School Board Superintendent Michael Ritacco are still  involved today.

What we know is that the state of New Jersey has revoked the license of a former Birdsall Engineering executive.  What we don’t know is exactly why the FBI and New Jersey Attorney General’s Office is investigating Ocean County politicians.  Here’s what we do know so far, the FBI has interviewed several individuals regarding information pertaining to Jackson Township Mayor Michael Reina and other public officials, developers and contractors connected to Reina.  Those efforts appear to be linked to a federal civil rights case filed by U.S. Attorney William Barr against Reina and the township.  Those interviewed by the FBI field office in Red Bank say questioning revolved around Reina’s political and developer ties and pay to play contracts.

What we also know is that the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office is investigating something big in Toms River.  Last month, the OAG requested tens of thousands of employment and payroll documents from the township.  Those records also included health benefits, job awards, contracts and workman’s compensation documents.

This week, the Attorney General closed the door on the shore’s last big pay to play scandal.  Whether or not a new door will open soon in Jackson or Toms River is still somewhat of a mystery.

Here’s what happened today:

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division of Consumer Affairs today announced that two professional boards have revoked the licenses of a former executive of the Birdsall Services Group (“Birdsall”) engineering firm after he was convicted for his role in a criminal scheme to funnel more than $1 million in corporate political contributions through the company’s employees in an effort to evade New Jersey’s campaign finance laws.

James Johnston, 58, of New Brunswick violated multiple rules and regulations governing both the practice of professional engineers and professional planners, when he made illegal corporate political contributions that were reimbursed by the company through disguised bonus payments.

After a hearing of testimony and evidence, the New Jersey State Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, and the New Jersey State Board of Professional Planners (the “Boards”), independently found that Johnston’s criminal conviction relates adversely to the practice of professional engineering and planning.

In final orders filed today, both Boards separately revoked Johnston’s licenses to practice as a professional engineer and a professional planner in New Jersey, and barred him from applying for any professional license in the State for a minimum period of five years. Additionally, Johnston was ordered to pay attorneys’ fees and investigation costs in the amount of $2,820.09 by each professional board, totaling the full cost assessment of $5,640.18.

Johnston previously was sentenced in June 2017 to 270 days in the county jail as a condition of a term of two years of probation.

“Individuals who abuse their professional credentials and the public trust in order to violate our campaign finance laws should be prepared to face severe consequences,” said Attorney General Grewal. ”Professional licensees involved in schemes to avoid our pay-to-play laws face not only jail time and monetary penalties, but also loss of the licenses they rely on to earn their livelihood.”

“Johnston’s conduct and subsequent criminal conviction signal a blatant disregard for the rules promulgated by the professional boards, and raise serious concerns about his professional judgment and fitness to practice,” said Acting Director Paul R. Rodríguez. “The resolution of this case should send a clear message to all licensed professionals who may be tempted to violate the public trust and confidence.”

Under the scheme, 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 made personal political contributions of $300 or less, which are deemed unreportable. Multiple personal checks were bundled together at Birdsall and sent to the appropriate campaign or political organization.  The shareholders and employees were then illegally reimbursed by Birdsall, directly or indirectly, through added bonus payments, and the firm falsely omitted the illegally reimbursed contributions in documents filed with the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) and with government agencies that awarded the firm engineering services contracts.  The scheme continued for more than six years and involved more than $1 million in contributions.

Eight Birdsall executives and employees pleaded guilty to criminal charges, as did the company itself.

The revocations of Johnston’s licenses are effective November 16, 2020. Before then, Johnston must complete any projects on which he is working, or make arrangements for them to be completed by another professional engineer or professional planner. Johnston shall not take on any new clients or projects, and if there are any companies that rely upon his ability to practice, he must immediately provide them with the Board’s decision to revoke his licenses to practice as a professional engineering and a professional planner.

Under his criminal guilty plea, Johnston is debarred for 10 years from personally bidding on public contracts in New Jersey or holding an interest of 5 percent or more in any company that bids for such contracts.

Deputy Attorney General Daniel Evan Leef Hewitt of the Professional Boards Prosecution Section in the Division of Law represented the State in this matter.
The matter was investigated by the Enforcement Bureau within the Division of Consumer Affairs.