corruption

5 NJ Public Officials, Political Candidates Snared in Huge Corruption Probe

Some of the accused allegedly took cash payoffs stuffed in paper bags and coffee cups

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What to Know

  • Five former and current public officials and political candidates in New Jersey are facing charges of taking bribes following a major corruption investigation, the state's attorney general announced Thursday.
  • The five defendants are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.
  • In return, the defendants allegedly promised the cooperating witness, who is a tax attorney, that they would vote or use their official authority or influence to hire or continue to hire his law firm for lucrative government legal work.

Five former and current public officials and political candidates in New Jersey are facing charges of taking bribes following a major corruption investigation, the state's attorney general announced Thursday.

The five defendants are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said. In return, the defendants allegedly promised the cooperating witness, who is a tax attorney, that they would vote or use their official authority or influence to hire or continue to hire his law firm for lucrative government legal work. 

Envelopes and paper bags filled with cash – and even a coffee cup stuffed with cash – were delivered to the defendants by the cooperating witness at restaurants, parking lots, a political fundraiser, and a campaign headquarters, according to Grewal.  Other times the cooperating witness offered checks from illegal “straw donors” – which are individuals reimbursed to write checks to the defendant’s campaign in amounts that complied with the legal limit on individual donations.

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Incumbent Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas, who at the time of his conduct also was preparing to run for Jersey City Councilman in 2021, is charged with accepting $35,000 in cash bribes, $10,000 delivered on one date and $25,000 delivered on a second date, according to prosecutors.

Thomas allegedly agreed, in return for the cash payments, to arrange for the cooperating witness to be hired as a special counsel for the Jersey City Board of Education.  Thomas and the cooperating witness allegedly discussed specific work projects that the cooperating witness would receive from the board of education.

Thomas' alleged conduct took place between May and July 2019. Thomas lost his bid for re-election to the Jersey City School Board in November. His term on the Board ends at the end of December.

Thomas' attorney did not immediately respond to NBC 4 New York's email request for comment.

Former State Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Bayonne in 2018, is charged with accepting a $10,000 bribe.  O’Donnell allegedly solicited $10,000 in “street money” for his mayoral campaign from the cooperating witness. 

O’Donnell allegedly accepted a paper bag containing $10,000 in cash from the cooperating witness at his campaign headquarters.  In return, O’Donnell allegedly agreed to provide the cooperating witness with tax work from the City of Bayonne if elected mayor.

O’Donnell failed to file required campaign reports with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) disclosing the $10,000 contribution.

The alleged criminal conduct occurred between April and May 2018.

Attorney Leo Hurley, who is representing O'Donnell, said his client " 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. He intends to contest these allegations with equal vigor and to enter a plea of not guilty to the charges against him."

Additionally, Former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro was also charged following the investigation.

Cesaro, who was a sitting county freeholder at the time of the alleged criminal conduct, solicited contributions from the cooperating witness for his 2021 campaign for Mayor of Parsippany-Troy Hills. 

Prosecutors say Cesaro accepted bribes from the cooperating witness, in return for which he promised to secure more tax work from Morris County for the cooperating witness and make him tax counsel for Parsippany-Troy Hills if elected.

Cesaro allegedly accepted an envelope containing $10,000 in cash and $2,350 in checks from the cooperating witness, but later returned the cash, asking the cooperating witness to replace it with checks.  The two allegedly discussed using “straw donors.”  Under New Jersey election law, it is illegal for a person to provide money to another person, known as a “straw donor,” to make a political contribution to a specific candidate.  At a later fundraiser, Cesaro accepted two checks for $2,600 each – the individual limit for contributions per election per candidate – which the cooperating witness described as “my straws,” along with another check for $150.

Cesaro's alleged actions took place between April and May 2018.

Robert Dunn, Cesaro's lawyer, called his client a "dedicated lawyer, family man and public servant."

"He denies all allegations contained in the complaint and we will be aggressively defending him in this matter," Dunn said.

Former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish allegedly accepted a $7,000 cash bribe. 

Windish allegedly solicited cash from the cooperating witness for his unsuccessful bid for re-election to borough council in June 2018.  In return, Windish allegedly promised that he would support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as borough attorney.

According to prosecutors, Windish accepted an envelope containing $7,000 in cash from the cooperating witness.

The alleged criminal conduct occurred in May 2018.

Attorney information for Windish was not immediately known.

Mary Dougherty, a real estate agent from Morristown, allegedly accepted a bribe of $10,000 from the cooperating witness – initially delivered as cash but later converted to checks from “straw donors” – for her unsuccessful campaign for Morris County Freeholder in 2018, prosecutors say.  In return, she allegedly promised to support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as counsel for Morris County.

During a meeting at a restaurant, Dougherty allegedly accepted $10,000 cash in $100 denominations that the cooperating witness delivered in a take-out coffee cup.  Dougherty later returned the cash, asking the cooperating witness to replace the cash with four checks, each within the $2,600 individual contribution limit. The cooperating witness told Dougherty he would use the returned $10,000 in cash to pay four individuals to write checks. The pair met again at the same restaurant, where Dougherty accepted four checks, each in the amount of $2,500 payable to “Mary for Morris Freeholder.” 

This allegedly took place between August and October 2018.

In a statement from Dougherty, provided to News 4 by her lawyer, she said she plans to fight the allegations brought against her.

"I learned today that I have been charged with campaign finance related offenses in connection with my 2018 campaign for Morris County Freeholder.  While I intend to defend against these allegations in the courtroom and not the press, I will say that I am a person of great integrity and conscious and I look forward to presenting my side of the story after which I expect to vindicated," the statement read.

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