Wikipedia describes ‘Pay to Play‘ in politics as a system, akin to payola in the music industry, by which one pays money to become a player. Typically, the payer (an individual, business, or organization) makes campaign contributions to public officials, party officials, or the parties themselves, and receives political or pecuniary benefit such as no-bid government contracts, influence over legislation, political patronage appointments, special access or other favors.
While the direct exchange of campaign contributions for contracts is the most visible form of Pay to Play, the greater concern is the central role of money in politics, and its skewing both the composition and the policies of government. Thus, those who can pay the price of admission, such as to a $1000/plate dinner, gain access to power and/or its spoils, to the exclusion of those who cannot or will not pay.
Incumbent candidates and their political organizations are typically the greatest beneficiaries of Pay to Play. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been criticized for the practice. Many seeking to ban or restrict the practice characterize it as legalized corruption. Pay to Play practices have come under scrutiny by both the federal government and a number of states.
The Asbury Park Press reports that Howard Birdsall, the former head of what was once one of New Jersey’s oldest and most prestigious engineering firms, was sentenced to four years in prison in a Pay to Play corruption case that brought about the demise of the company that bore his family’s name.
Birdsall and six other executives of the engineering firm, as well as the company itself, were indicted in 2013 on charges that they masked corporate campaign contributions as individual political donations in order to skirt the state’s Pay to Play laws to get contracts the company otherwise would have been disqualified from.
New Jersey Superior Court Judge James Den Uyl imposed the prison term on Birdsall, 72, of Brielle for the scheme he engaged in to skirt the state’s Pay to Play laws. Birdsall, former chief executive officer and the largest shareholder of defunct, Eatontown-based Birdsall Services Group, was ordered to forfeit $49,808, representing the unlawful political donations he made. Den Uyl also barred Birdsall from holding any contracts with public entities in the state for 10 years.
The plot also involved reimbursing individual employees of the firm with bonuses for political contributions they made. The state has alleged the firm and its executives made more than $1 million in large part through illegal contributions from employees. At the time of the indictment, Birdsall had public contracts worth more than $26 million.
The investigation into the firm began in 2012, spurred by the messy divorce of a onetime company employee. The soon-to-be ex-wife of former marketing manager Philip Angarone secretly taped a conversation in which he admitted the scheme when she questioned his income. Angarone, 43, of Hamilton and another marketing department employee, Eileen Kufahl, 51, of Bradley Beach pleaded guilty before the indictment was returned, and both are awaiting sentencing.
This New Jersey case is eerily similar to one reported in the Rockland County Times in which some remarkable contributions uncovered by this author were made to County Legislator Ilan Schoenberger by Brega Transport employees. The Rockland County Times subsequently detailed the extent of these employee contributions by this company which is located in Valley Cottage.
The RCT stated that Brega Transport had won a $70 million contract from the County of Rockland after years of legal battles and it appeared that at least one Rockland County legislator had been more than amply rewarded for his consistent support of Brega: County Executive candidate at the time and still county legislator, Ilan Schoenberger (D-Wesley Hills/New Square).
Campaign filing reports showed that during the months of April and May in 2013, Brega family members and employees, including low-level employees, gave a total of $48,000 to Ilan Schoenberger. Eight employees and family members gave the same $4,000 contribution. Several of the donations occurred on the same day – April 11.
Customer service advisor Brandon Sweeting was one of those who gave $4,000. When asked by the Rockland County Times what inspired the generous donation, he said, “I don’t know if there is such a thing as a necessary inspiration, I am just a big fan of his work and he deserved it.” Brandon claimed he had no trouble affording the large donation and also said there was no group discussion at Brega regarding the donations. The latter claim seems highly improbable given that several Brega-associated individuals were listed giving the SAME amount of money on the SAME day.
Add to this another Journal News report in which we learned that then-Clarkstown Supervisor Alexander Gromack was paid about $10,000 to “refer” customers to Brega but failed to report the work on his Rockland County ethics forms. The arrangement was reportedly reviewed by a federal grand jury, after it subpoenaed Gromack’s county ethics filings from the Rockland County Board of Ethics.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s letter attached to the subpoena stated, in part: “Please be advised that the accompanying subpoena has been issued in connection with an official criminal investigation of a suspected felony being conducted by a federal grand jury”. Gromack, an elected official since 1983 until 2015 (when he was defeated by George Hoehmann) became Clarkstown’s supervisor in 2004. He said that Brega paid him to refer people who might need commercial vehicle maintenance to Brega’s RTB Industries from Feb. 2012 to March 2013.
And that is not the end of this odd story. Additionally, there were strange attempts to give more money to Brega Transport as the company was rumored to be struggling to fulfill the contract at the price it had bid. For example, Legislator Moroney – citing that a Brega bus had burst into fire – led an inane crusade to give taxpayers’ money to Brega to wash its buses daily which he stated would prevent them from unexpectedly bursting into fire.
Moroney attempted to feed this financial ‘rat poison‘ to the taxpayers of Rockland County under the ruse that a Brega bus spontaneously became a ‘Roman Candle’ in his home district of Pearl River and that this fire was due to the external uncleanliness of the bus which had not been washed on a frequent enough basis i.e. daily. (The fire had originated in a rear wheel and was probably caused by a stuck brake which the driver had noticed earlier in his trip.)
According to the Journal News the County Legislature was somehow strangely convinced by Moroney’s blarney and subsequently voted 13-3 to approve the bus washes after Moroney, the resolution’s main sponsor, said the bus washes were necessary “for public safety”.
His logic that all of a sudden Rockland County’s bus system, which had operated for decades without any such safety problem, had become the county’s main fire hazard defied credulity though believe it or not he found moral support from another Brega supporter, Legislator Soskin. Soskin opined that there was a little booklet in the glove compartment of his car that advised him it was a good practice to wash his automobile periodically. Brega’s contract called for a minimum of one washing per bus per week, and the legislators interpreted that to mean any additional washings would have to be paid for by the taxpayers of Rockland County – a cost that could have amounted to $700,000 yearly.
Moroney said he researched the causes of bus fires and later the Journal News reported that it reviewed the same study he had “researched” and had not reached the same conclusions. According to the JN, the report that Moroney apparently “researched” concluded that 30 percent of 120 bus fires from 2002 through 2006 originated in one of six areas of the bus including the undercarriage, tires and brakes. It made recommendations including keeping ignition points protected, covered and clean and keeping other debris away from those points but said nothing about daily washing as a preventative fire measure. Though the report did NOT specify washings, Moroney interpreted the report to mean DAILY bus washings should be done.
Continuing with the Journal News’ report, witness testimony, Journal News’ photos and video indicated the TOR bus fire started in the right rear wheel well. The tire exploded and landed in a homeowner’s yard after the bus had pulled over on Washington Avenue in Pearl River. Meanwhile, a copy of a report submitted by Brega Transport to the county included a statement from the bus driver, who said a burning smell was coming from the rear tire while the vehicle was in Spring Valley. The driver stated that he called the Brega dispatcher to report the smell and was told to continue on the route. Despite the absence of a cause, during an interview Moroney said it was important to act now. “This is just a matter of public safety,” he said.
Moroney pitched using federal funds to pay for the washings, but Rockland hadn’t received the money it had qualified for and it was unclear when it would. Instead the county proposed to tap $310,000 from the “Special Dedicated Tax Appropriations” account in the county Department of Public Transportation budget. Moroney said “the money’s just lying there. It’s surplus. It wasn’t spent.”
Legislator Michael Grant, D-Garnerville voted against the daily bus washes and raised concerns about where the money for the washings would come from, noting that $700,000 to $800,000 would be needed to cover the cost of daily washings for a full year. Moroney said he understood the concern. “We’ll have to see about next year,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have to change it (the daily bus washes) to every other day OR something else.”
The Legislature’s resolution was sent to County Executive Ed Day who promptly vetoed it leaving Legislator Moroney’s ‘lead-footed‘ arguments about the spontaneous combustion dangers of our public transport system to be met with public derision. It is unlikely, however, he learned from this experience that taxpayers are not the fools he seems to think they are from whom money may easily be parted.
Now we wait to learn whether the strange contributions from Brega’s friends, family and employees to County Legislator Schoenberger have broken any criminal ‘Pay to Play‘ rules in New York. Time will tell as Federal investigators continue their examination of Rockland County’s ‘Corridor of Corruption’. Perhaps one day we will also learn why former Supervisor Gromack felt he needed to work part-time as a salesman for Brega while employed as the Town’s Supervisor and why Legislator Moroney played the Legislature’s ‘fiddler’s fool’ in the saga of the blazing bus.