TRENTON -- A new bill advancing in the state Legislature would institute a one-strike rule for government contractors that bars all future contract work after a fraud conviction.
The bill, which was approved from an Assembly committee last week, would permanently bar anyone convicted of a second-degree government contracting fraud from working as a "key employee" in firms receiving such contracts in the future.
"When a lawyer is convicted of something, they're disbarred. When a doctor makes an egregious error, they lose their medical license," said Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer), a primary sponsor of the bill. "This is a situation where somebody defrauded the government of taxpayer dollars. They shouldn't be allowed to have another chance."
The bill specifically refers to "key employees" as a company's CEO, CFO, COO, president, vice president, chief information officer, director or supervisory manager.
Under the new legislation, the state treasurer would publish and maintain an online list of permanently banned contractors. A company awarded a government contract must provide written certification that it doesn't employ anyone on the list before receiving the contract.
"This bill was intended to send a clear message that, if you're going to work for government on behalf of the taxpayers, you must do so in a fair and honest way," said primary sponsor Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer).
The bill specifically targets "key employees," forbidding executives and decision-makers to accept such roles in other companies. Low-level "day-to-day" employees "caught up" in such schemes aren't affected, Benson said.
"This is going after the people making decisions that lead to that conviction," he said.
If signed into law, the bill could mean a lifetime ban for executives of Birdsall Engineering Group who have been charged with money laundering, conspiracy and making false representations for government contracts as part of a statewide pay-to-play scheme.
According to the state Attorney General's office, Birdsall executives funneled thousands of dollars to elected officials through their employees, who were reimbursed for their donations.
Before it went bankrupt and was absorbed, the Monmouth County firm held multiple contracts with Mercer County towns, mostly in Hamilton. Between 2008 and 2012, Birdsall won more than $200,000 in Hamilton contracts while contributing more than $20,000 to local election funds, including former Mayor John Bencivengo who was convicted in an unrelated corruption trial.
Hamilton was home to former Birdsall executive Phil Angarone, Jr., a former county Republican chairman who, during divorce proceedings, was recorded saying that the company was reimbursing him for making contributions to local election campaigns, which launched the investigation into illegal activities by the firm.
Hamilton officials have remained steadfast that Birdsall was often the most qualified vendor and lowest bidder.
Birdsall accepted a 10-year ban on public contracts as part of its plea agreement but Benson and Gusciora's bill would place a lifetime ban on any executives convicted in the pay-to-play case.
"If you've ripped off the taxpayer once, you lost the public's trust and shouldn't be given a chance to do it again," state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said last year after authoring an identical Senate bill. "We've seen far too many people practice the art of deception when it comes to business dealings, and the public's hard-earned dollars need to be protected."
Mike Davis, Times of Trenton