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EDITORIAL: Courthouse Con Job Shows Why Voters Deserve a Say on Large County Expenditures

The Ocean County

The plan to make major renovations to the Ocean County Courthouse complex has all the makings of yet another colossal waste of taxpayer dollars, as a majority of freeholders roll out the red carpet for a politically connected contractor that has a documented history of inflating bills to defraud governments of unearned money through fraudulent bills and accounting schemes. As an additional check and balance on government spending, citizens should be given a chance to vote on county capital expenditures over a certain threshold just as state law requires of local school boards.

In Ocean County, despite poverty numbers continuing to look grim, as many residents continue to cope with the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, our county freeholders have turned their attention to building a brand new, totally unnecessary county courthouse complex, details of which were already covered here on this website.

gilmorecourthouse

If approved, most of the contracts on the courthouse project will be awarded to New Jersey-based engineering and consulting firm Louis Berger Group for “construction management” services related to the project, which began with a $1.1 million study on the future of Ocean County’s buildings done by the same firm.

But what the freeholders won’t tell the public is that the contractor they’ve rolled out the red carpet for has a disturbing history filled with criminal inflation of bills, fraud and bribery, a history that should immediately disqualify them from any and all work financed by Ocean County taxpayers. Citizens would be wise to question both the lack of transparency of this project along with just who will really benefit from this when it’s all said and done.

Courthouse Contractor Found Liable For Bribery, Fraud, Overbilling

The biggest concern surrounding the contractor involved in this project is repeated instances of overbilling governments. The first documented allegations of Louis Berger overbilling governments began in the late 1990’s, when from 1999-2007 the company did work for the federal government in Iraq and Afghanistan and overcharged USAID, an independent agency within the federal government for work related to a contract signed with the company, for which company leadership faced charges.

The New York Times reported that at the time, the $69.3 million in criminal restitution payments made by the company were was the largest fine to paid by a defense contractor working in the two middle east warzones. The company’s agreement with the government to defer prosecution did not explicitly bar them from doing future government contract work, and later issues would show that the company and its leaders did not learn their lesson.

In 2015, citing the company’s “corrupt practices,” the World Bank, a global financial institution, banned Louis Berger from doing business with the organization for a period of one year following an investigation into the company’s handling of World Bank-financed projects in Vietnam. The World Bank investigation revealed bribes being paid to government officials related to the projects.

It doesn’t end there. Earlier this summer, in July, another of the company’s executives was sentenced in Trenton federal court to just two years of probation for bribing foreign governments to secure contracts for the engineering and consulting firm. Federal prosecutors successfully argued that the Louis Berger executive violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by attempting to rig the awarding of contracts with bribes.

The ink wasn’t even dry on the guilty pleas of company executives, when this summer yet another lawsuit was filed against Louis Berger. The suit was filed by a former employee who alleges that the company’s former CEO and CFO conspired to commit large-scale accounting fraud in United State Government-funded projects around the world. The Deparment of Justice also agreed to intervene in the case on behalf of the plaintiff, as the suit was filed under the False Claims Act, which allows citizens to sue companies defrauding the government and receive a share of the proceeds.

As serious as these issues were, none of them were apparently enough for the county freeholders to second-guess their decision to hire the company, and we suspect that political expedience may just have given most of the freeholders tunnel vision.

Considering the fact that Louis Berger is both a client of Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore’s lobbying firm, 1868 Public Affairs, as well as the fact that they have even shacked up with Gilmore’s law firm, renting office space in Gilmore’s Allen Street building in Toms River, it isn’t hard to imagine why that would be a key factor in the push for new county buildings.

Despite his firm earning millions of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded contracts each year, Mr. Gilmore continues to be mired in tax problems, with just under $1 million in federal tax liens remaining on his Toms River properties as of last check.

With political muscle behind the courthouse project courtesy of the political influence-peddling network currently headed up by Mr. Gilmore, the project is being quickly moved ahead pending final action by the freeholder board.

Voters Can Be A Check And Balance If County Must Put Project On The Ballot

How can we put a stop to rushed through giveaways of taxpayer dollars such as this? One way might be to look to how the state regulates the debt of local school boards and consider applying the same or similar requirements to the county finances.

Instead of quietly approving these high-value contracts and the debt that will inevitably come along with them, the county government should be required to do as local school boards must when they want to do construction projects similar to what is being done for the county buildings, take their proposal to the voters via a referendum.

Doing so would give the public a chance to weigh in and decide for themselves whether a given project is a prudent use of their tax dollars, as we have seen with the school referendum process throughout New Jersey.

Requirements for school districts to hold bond referendums are currently set by state law, and if the legislature were to impose the same requirements on county or even municipal expenditures, it would be a good way to provide citizens with another check and balance against wasteful spending and questionable contractors, as currently the only recourse voters have is to elect new freeholders, something that hasn’t happened since 1989.

While the only way to ensure this would work on a statewide level would be for the state to take action, nothing is stopping the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders from passing a resolution of their own to require capital expenditures or bonding over a certain dollar amount be put up to the voters in the form of a public question.

But will they? Don’t hold your breath.

Freeholders Kept Public In The Dark About Courthouse Project

The veil of secrecy that has covered this project since its inception forces one to question whether any good could possibly come out of a project like this.

Meetings and presentations were held regarding the project earlier this summer, but members of the public would have been none the wiser. Details about the plan were not revealed at regular meetings of the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Presentations about the courthouse plan were made only during “pre-board” meetings of the freeholders, which according to the county website are usually held at 4:00 PM on dates listed by the county website.

In what can only be construed as an attempt to limit public and media involvement, without any explanation, some of the meetings were hastily rescheduled to 2:00 PM rather than the usual 4:00 PM time, and the county website was never updated to reflect the fact that the time of the meetings was changed.

If you work for a living, would you be able to attend a public meeting at 2:00 PM on a weekday to voice your concerns? Another black mark for transparency.

Looking at this project and the people behind the entire plan, it has become clear that The Louis Berger Group’s repeated legal and ethical troubles show a disturbing pattern of criminality and contempt for the very taxpayers that are ultimately underwriting their public contracts.

As documented by the numerous indictments, plea deals and criminal financial penalties paid out by the firm over the years, the evidence has shown that fraud and bribery were not just isolated occurrences at Louis Berger, but were instead standard operating procedure at the company set to be handed millions of dollars worth of work on brand new county courthouse buildings.

Rather than getting the very best for what they pay in county property taxes, this time around it looks like Ocean County taxpayers are set to take yet another beating if this plan goes through. If voters were to be given the chance to have the final say on expenditures such as this, they may be able to prevent this from happening again in the future.

OCP Poll:

Should Voters Have To Approve Large County Expenditures?

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