On August 28, 2018, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Morris County case of State v. Richard Bernardi. The first of two principal issues before the Court was whether an Administrative Consent Order entered between a landfill owner and the Department of Environmental Protection is a “government contract.” Writing for the panel, former Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Vernoia held in relevant part as follows:
Count one charges a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b), which provides: A person commits a crime if the person knowingly makes a material representation that is false in connection with the negotiation, award or performance of a government contract. If the contract amount is for $25,000.00 or above, the offender is guilty of a crime of the second degree. If the contract amount exceeds $2,500.00, but is less than $25,000.00, the offender is guilty of a crime of the third degree. If the contract amount is for $2,500.00 or less, the offender is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree.
Count one alleges defendants violated N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b) by knowingly making false representations concerning their financial condition and ability to generate revenue through solar power generation equipment in connection with the negotiation and award of the ACO.
The State contends the court erred by finding the ACO was not a “government contract.” The State argues the court correctly found the ACO was an enforceable agreement between defendants and the NJDEP, but erroneously concluded the ACO was not a “government contract” covered by because the ACO did not provide for the NJDEP’s purchase of goods and services from a vendor. We agree and reverse the court’s dismissal of count one.
In our consideration of the court’s interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2C:21-34(b), we apply well-established principles of statutory construction. “The overriding goal of all statutory interpretation is to determine as best we can the intent of the Legislature, and to give effect to that intent. In most instances, the best indicator of that intent is the plain language chosen by the Legislature.” We therefore are required to begin “with the language of the statute, and the words chosen by the Legislature should be accorded their ordinary and accustomed meaning.”
Unlike most theft-related statutes in New Jersey, 2C:21-34 has no provision for the grading of a disorderly persons offense. Thus, making a false representation with regard to a $1 government contract is a felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison.