Occhipinti and Romano were not the only Hudson County politicians named in the Star-Ledger’s report, and received small contributions compared to the others. The story also mentioned County Executive Tom DeGise ($6,500 in contributions), Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith ($7,600), and State senators Brian Stack (D–33rd Dist.) ($4,850) and Nicholas Sacco (D–32rd) ($6,600).
The Eatontown-based firm found itself in hot water at the end of March when the state attorney general’s office seized its assets and indicted seven current and former executives on first-degree conspiracy and money-laundering charges. They subsequently pleaded guilty on behalf of the company, agreeing to pay a fine of $1 million and submit to a ten-year ban on public contracts.
Romano and Occhipinti said that they had never met anyone from Birdsall.
Birdsall execs were accused of having made a large number of illegal campaign donations, in part by funneling funds through employees who would attend political fundraisers, in an effort to receive public contracts.
“I’ve done nothing inappropriate,” said Occhipinti, who accepted $300 at a fundraiser in 2010 which, according to the Star-Ledger, originally came from Birdsall.
Romano, who accepted $625 from 2010 to 2011 in preparation for a countywide freeholder election, noted that his accountant and campaign team handle his election accounts, and that he rarely checks the books himself.
“I have been in touch with the county counselor, though,” he said Tuesday. “And he’s assured me that I did nothing wrong.”
For the most part, private firms and vendors are banned from making political donations over $300, but there have been numerous instances of firms, like Birdsall, finding ways to circumvent those laws.
According to the Star-Ledger, Birdsall made upwards of 1,000 contributions worth around $1.05 million around the state from 2008 to early 2012, and during that time received around $84 million in public contracts.
Occhipinti, who has sat on the council since 2010, said he has not voted on any Birdsall contracts. The most recent city contract given to Birdsall was in 2009, for work on 1600 Park. Occhipinti says that he often cross-references his campaign donations against upcoming council votes.
“The law is that vendors and professional firms are allowed to contribute, it’s legal,” he said. “But I tend to err on the side of caution. If I see a vote coming up, I’ll return the check.”
Romano said that considering the revelations about how easily a professional firm could find loopholes in the state’s pay-to-play laws, which are meant to prevent private firms from profiting off specific the election of specific politicians, the laws might be worth taking a second look at.
“Obviously if there’s an infraction, there’s a cost, and that’s something we should look at,” he said. “If there’s an intent to circumvent the system, obviously I’m against it.”
Occhipinti said that he would consider making a donation to a Hoboken charity in the amount he received from Birdsall.
Look for more details in an upcoming edition of the Reporter. – Dean DeChiaro