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Licensee’s criminal campaign donation scheme was adverse to practice of profession and revocation was appropriate

Credit: Pictures of Money,

Credit: Pictures of Money,

A New Jersey appeals court upheld a decision by the state engineering board to revoke the license of an engineer convicted of engaging in a scheme to make illegal campaign donations. The court held December 27 that such a crime was sufficiently adverse to the practice of engineering to authorize the board to issue sanctions (In the Matter of the License of James Johnston).

The case originated with New Jersey’s State Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, after engineer James Johnston was convicted of making illegal contributions as part of a scheme to circumvent campaign finance laws by reimbursing the donations of employees of the engineering firm at which he was an executive, Birdsall Services Group.

During disciplinary proceedings based on that conviction, Johnston conceded that his crime was adversely related to the practice of engineering, but cited the doctrine of laches, on the grounds that the three-year span between his conviction and the disciplinary case to revoke his license in 2020 made the revocation unreasonable. The board revoked his license anyway and prohibited him from re-applying for five years, and Johnston appealed.

On appeal, Johnston claimed that the board improperly based part of its decision on the shock to the public trust that Johnston’s actions caused, arguing that the board did not have such a public trust as one of its legitimate regulatory concerns. He also attempted to walk back his earlier concession that his criminal conviction was related to the practice of engineering. And he argued that revocation was too harsh a penalty.

None of this succeeded. First, the court, citing the board’s stating statutory duty to protect the public, held that “guarding the public trust is very much within the Board’s authority.” Regarding Johnston’s claim that the revocation was too harsh a penalty and improperly failed to consider any individual assessment in his culpability in the greater scheme which led to his conviction, the court disagreed.

In revoking Johnston’s license, the board had specifically found that his actions were injurious to the profession, stating that his actions were “antithetical to the standards we expect of all licensed engineers, and at their core fundamentally adverse to the practice of engineering.” Further, the board had specifically allowed Johnston to re-apply after a five-year period, which it felt was reflective of any mitigating factors in his case.

Regarding the harshness of the sanctions, the court, noting that it had limited discretion to overturn disciplinary sanctions, held that the board’s revocation of Johnston’s license was, at a minimum, not so disproportionate as to call for its overturning.