Angry Birdsall Saga – Execs buy influence in Hamilton

Dear Fellow Democrats,

By now I expect you are aware that the former Mercer County Republican Chairman, Phil Angarone Jr. has pled guilty to a host of corruption offenses in Ocean County in connection with illegal campaign contributions made on behalf of the Birdsall Engineering Group. What you may not know is that this same firm has done over $275,000 in business with Hamilton Township (Mercer County) and that there is a very real probability that Mr. Angarone engaged in the same types of corrupt behaviors here that he has pled guilty to in Ocean.

For many months, I have been tracking the Birdsall saga and as each rock is turned over there are more and more squirmy dealings that indicate a culture of corruption that permeates Hamilton Township government. The corruption of a Mayor and his key aides was abetted by the witting, or unwitting, complicity of a Council that was unwilling to look beyond the party label to identify and prevent the selling of our government to an ongoing criminal enterprise.

Under the administration of convicted Ex-Mayor John Bencivengo, Birdsall Engineering Group has been the beneficiary of $276,235 in non-bid professional services contracts. That total includes four change orders that increased the original value of the contracts by 35% or $71,266. During that same time, the Birdsall Group has been featured in multiple premium full-page ads on behalf of the Mayor’s annual ball fundraiser (Gold Pages) which were priced in the thousands of dollars. Despite the placement of the ads in Birdsall’s name, no reporting of contributions from Birdsall or any of its identified principles has been made to ELEC that would account for the ads. I should also note that no other contractor has received change orders of this magnitude.

The presence of the annual ads on behalf of Birdsall in the mayor’s ad books would indicate that large sums of money were being provided to the election fund of the mayor and the local Republican Committee without their true source being revealed in reports to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission or in documents required by the Township to certify that no play to play violations are associated with a contract. Further, were such contributions to be reported, they would constitute a violation of the Township’s pay to play ordinance. As it is, the hiding of the contributions through the use of “straw donors” as admitted to by Mr. Angarone, is illegal by itself.

The members of Council have asserted that Birdsall’s contracts were granted on the basis of open and competitive bidding. That is untrue. Although they did issue Requests for Proposals, these were not advertised beyond the township web site and, in some cases, they approached select contractors and invited them to provide quotes. The bids are not competitive in the true sense of the word in that they are not sealed, nor are they opened at the same time in an open public bid opening session. This is legal, but amounts to little more than putting a wig on a turd and calling it a prom date. It is absurdly easy to manipulate that process in order to route contracts to a favored contractor, especially if one is willing to go outside the law as Birdsall employees have admitted doing.

In the case of Birdsall, it wouldn’t matter if the initial process was fair. They secured substantial additional revenues through the use of uncontested change orders to the original contracts that were granted by Council without discussion and often as part of their Consent Agenda. These change orders were not part of any bidding process.  It is telling that even after the story has broken about Mr. Angarone and Birdsall’s illegal activities in Ocean County, two members of the all-Republican Council voted this week to give another contract to Birdsall.

Under the administration of former Mayor Bencivengo, Birdsall has profited greatly with little or no oversight. Although they obtained several small contracts prior to the Mayor taking office, it was his election that led to an explosion in the level of business for the firm. From 2008 through 2011 the firm was granted 8 contracts. All but one of these contracts was approved on the Council’s consent agenda with virtually no discussion. In addition, four of these contracts were subsequently the subject of massive upward change orders totaling $71,266. All of these change orders were passed as part of consent agendas with no discussion recorded in the Council minutes. All of them, of course, were no-bid professional services contracts.

Remember that the current Council, as well as the new Mayor, has been part of these decisions.

Further, Hamilton’s pay to play ordinance prohibits firms that have no-bid professional services contracts with the municipality not only from donating to campaigns, it also prohibits them from soliciting contributions from others, Phillip Angarone Jr., was listed variously as Event Co-Chair and Ad Book Chair for a series of Mayor’s Ball ad books from 2008 through 2011. In that role he was the key player in fundraising for the Mayor’s balls that have netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Mayor and the Republican Municipal Committee.

Based on this information, I have sent a letter to the NJ Attorney General requesting that the state broaden its investigation of Birdsall and Mr. Angarone to include probable criminal activities in Hamilton Township as well. I have provided him with a list of the contracts and change orders in question and I have offered to provide copies of the ad books which include the unreported Birdsall ads.

I have also cc’d this letter to Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini and to the Executive Director of the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission.

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