The engineering firm Birdsall Services Group was built of New Jersey steel, the kind forged in a fire of wheeling and dealing and political influence that made the company a titan in the brawl for millions of dollars worth of public contracts.
Now it's all melting down.
Birdsall, bankrupt and a shadow of its former self, admitted in state court this month to dumping loads of illegal campaign donations into the coffers of elected officials, a practice one former employee said "regularly won contracts" for the company.
It was classic Jersey: Banned by law from giving more than $300 to many politicians, Birdsall instead had its employees write personal checks to candidates and then later reimbursed the staffers with salary bonuses and lied to the state on disclosure forms.
The company had created the perfect political machine, one that could skirt laws and churn out checks like a printing press, all without raising a single suspicion because each donation was for such a small sum of money it did not have to be reported to the public.
The scheme went undetected for at least six years until one of Birdsall's employees was surreptitiously caught on tape discussing it, touching off an investigation that authorities say uncovered one of the most expansive and sophisticated criminal pay-to-play conspiracies in recent history.
But one major piece of the puzzle — who received Birdsall's money — has remained a mystery.