Five current and former New Jersey public officials are facing charges of accepting bribes following a major corruption investigation, the state’s attorney general announced.
The five defendants are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from one cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said. In return, the officials promised the cooperating witness, who is a tax attorney, they would vote or use their office of influence to hire or continue to hire his law firm for lucrative government legal work.
The defendants include Sudhan Thomas, incumbent Jersey City school board president, and former State Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to be mayor of Bayonne in 2018.
Some of the multi-thousand-dollar bribes came in envelopes or paper bags filled with cash — or, in one case, a coffee cup stuffed with cash — and were delivered to the defendants by the tax attorney at restaurants, parking lots, a political fundraiser and a campaign headquarters.
Thomas was charged with accepting $35,000 in cash bribes, with $10,000 delivered in one instance and $25,000 delivered on another date.
In return for the cash payments, Thomas allegedly agreed to arrange for the tax attorney to be hired as a special counsel for the Jersey City Board of Education. His misconduct took place between May and July 2019. Thomas lost his bid for re-election to the Jersey City School Board in November.
O’Donnell, former state assemblyman, is charged with accepting a $10,000 bribe. O’Donnell allegedly accepted the bribe in so-called “street money” for his mayoral campaign from the cooperating witness in April and May 2018. O’Donnell allegedly agreed to provide him with tax work from Bayonne if elected mayor.
In the complaint, the tax attorney told O’Donnell “I just wanna be your tax guy,” to which O’Donnell responded, “Done.”
“Jason O’Donnell has dedicated his life to serving his community, has always conducted himself in a manner that makes his family and friends proud, and has consistently and vigorously fought for their best interests,” O’Donnell’s attorney, Leo Hurley, told Fox News. “He intends to contest these allegations with equal vigor and to enter a plea of not guilty to the charges against him.”
Former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro was charged for allegedly accepting an envelope containing $10,000 in cash and $2,350 in checks from the cooperating witness. He later returned the cash and asked for it to be replaced with checks. The two allegedly discussed using “straw donors.”
At a later fundraiser, the complaint said Cesaro accepted two checks for $2,600 each, the maximum limit for contributions in any given state election per candidate. The cooperating witness described them as “my straws.”
Former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish allegedly accepted a $7,000 cash bribe for his unsuccessful bid for re-election to borough council in June 2018. In return, Windish allegedly promised that he would support the tax attorney’s appointment for borough attorney.
Mary Dougherty, a real estate agent from Morristown, allegedly accepted a cash bribe for $10,000 from the cooperating witness. It was initially delivered as cash but later converted to checks from “straw donors”
During a meeting at a restaurant, Dougherty allegedly accepted the $10,000 cash in a takeout coffee cup. The pair met again and Dougherty accepted four checks, each for $2,500. When the checks were delivered, the cooperating witness said. “These are my straws… so I just need your support for reappointment. Don’t forget me.” “I won’t. I promise. A friend is a friend, my friend,” said Dougherty.
O’Donnell and Dougherty were charged only with second-degree bribery, since they were not yet in office at the time of the alleged bribe. Thomas, Cesaro and Windish are also charged with second-degree acceptance of unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior.
Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The second-degree charges against those who held public office at the time of their alleged conduct carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without eligibility of parole under New Jersey’s enhanced penalties for official corruption.
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