Noted engineer is indicted as part of corruption probe

Noted engineer is indicted as part of corruption probe

December 15, 2006 Star Ledger

The founder of a prominent engineering firm that has become one of the state's biggest government contractors was indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges yesterday.

The charges against Howard Schoor, 67, of Colts Neck stem from a long-running federal investigation into corruption in Monmouth County that has snared two dozen public officials.

The firm Schoor founded in 1968, Schoor DePalma, has been involved in high-profile projects in the public and private sector and has showered New Jersey politicians with millions of dollars in campaign cash over the years. The firm's engineers have been involved with everything from the Asbury Park waterfront redevelopment to Jersey Gardens mall and the Turnpike's Interchange 13A.

Schoor plied two Ocean Township officials with $16,000 in cash bribes between 1998 and 2001, according to a single-count indictment returned in federal district court in Newark. He also courted them with use of his condominium in Boca Raton, Fla., at his firm's expense, authorities said.

The two officials named in the indictment, Terrance Weldon and Stephen Kessler, previously pleaded guilty to related corruption charges. Both men served on Ocean Township's sewerage authority.

The bribes were intended to reward township officials for supporting the firm's effort to win work with the agency, including a contract to help renovate the authority's wastewater treatment plant that earned the firm upward of $850,000.

The firm itself, which Schoor left in August 2005, has cooperated with the government's investigation and is not accused of wrongdoing, according to a statement issued by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie's office yesterday.

Justin Walder, Howard Schoor's attorney, did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.

Schoor DePalma, based in Manalapan, is a household name in New Jersey politics. As governments around the state have debated a crackdown on pay-to-play, the practice of contributing campaign cash to help win public contracts, the engineering firm has often been cited as a prime player in the system.

The firm and its employees have donated nearly $3 million to New Jersey politicians and political parties at the state and county levels over the past quarter-century, mostly to Democrats. It ceased giving donations last August amid criticism of pay-to-play and the corruption investigation.

Schoor DePalma's government clients -- which account for about half of its work -- have included the Turnpike Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and more than five dozen local governments. The firm bills itself as the region's premier engineering firm, with more than 1,100 employees in 25 offices from New York to Arizona.

Schoor stepped down as CEO in 1992. He began selling his shares in the firm in 1996 and then started working as a consultant for the firm, according to the indictment.

Schoor served on the transition team of Democratic Gov. Jim Florio and is a well-known figure in Monmouth County for his philanthropy and ownership of racehorses.

The firm issued a statement last night saying it has been cooperating with federal authorities during an 18-month investigation and downplaying Schoor's involvement with the firm, saying it has been "limited" in recent years.

"The company is committed to conducting business with integrity and professionalism," the statement said. "The company, Schoor DePalma, has a long, successful history of service and is proud of its record in performing quality, professional work."


Schoor's indictment stems from a long-running FBI investigation.

Last summer, Kessler pleaded guilty to extortion and admitted he accepted bribes from an engineering employee, but did not publicly reveal it was Schoor. After that, Schoor quietly resigned. He sent a letter to the CEO, Stephen DePalma, denying any wrongdoing, the indictment said.

Schoor's bribes were to be split between Kessler and Weldon, the indictment said. On one occasion, he gave $1,000 to Weldon at a golf course in Jackson Township, authorities allege.

Schoor was charged with conspiracy to defraud the public of honest services, which carries a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He did not appear in court yesterday but is expected to be arraigned before a U.S. district judge in the next few weeks.

Authorities also allege Schoor sought to conceal his illegal payments. After Weldon acknowledged receiving the payments but did not name Schoor, Schoor wrote a letter to officials in Ocean Township.

He told them he and his firm "appreciates our long-term relationship, and you are assured that former Mayor Weldon, or anyone else in the Township, has never asked us to provide favorable treatment or to give special consideration to any person or any project within the township."

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, declined to say whether Kessler and Weldon, the former mayor of Ocean Township, were cooperating with federal authorities. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Corruption allegations have hurt the firm in the past. In 1991, Schoor's then-partner, Stephen DePalma, was acquitted on charges he paid a bribe to become the borough engineer of Carteret. DePalma stepped down while he was awaiting trial but his indictment by a state grand jury took its toll on the firm, at least in the short term.

As municipalities and private companies began withdrawing their contracts with the firm, the company laid off 138 employees -- one third of its work force.

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