Former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas and ex-Bayonne Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell are among four public officials that have been indicted today for allegedly taking cash bribes, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
The four defendants, which also include former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro and ex-Mt. Arlington Councilman John Windish, were initially charged by complaint-summons in December 2019.
A fifth defendant, Mary Dougherty, a former Morris County freeholder candidate, continues to face a bribery charge filed by complaint-summons at that time.
The four defendants are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of illegal campaign contributions.
In return, the defendants allegedly promised the cooperating witness, who has been identified as tax attorney Matt O’Donnell (no relation to Jason), 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 were delivered to the defendants by the cooperating witness at various locations.
Other times the cooperating witness offered checks from illegal “straw donors”— individuals reimbursed to write checks to the defendant’s campaign in amounts that complied with the legal limit on individual donations.
Specifically, Thomas faces a four-count indictment accusing him of official misconduct, a pattern of official misconduct, bribery in official and political matters, and acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior.
Thomas allegedly accepted a $35,000 cash bribe from Matt O’Donnell in exchange to receive public contracts from the Jersey City BOE between approximately February 27th, 2019 and July 29th of the same year.
The AG’s Office said in 2019 that Thomas planned to use the funds to start a campaign account for a run for a city council seat this year.
Back in January 2018, only HCV reported that Thomas had opened a new account with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, though said the notion he was prepping for a council run was “fake news.”
Thomas’ legal woes are quite significant already, facing a 26-count federal indictment alleging embezzlement, money laundering, and fraud during his tenure as the acting executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program.
Prominent criminal defense attorney Christopher Adams dropped Thomas as a client last year due to non-payment and he is now being represented by a public defender.
As for Jason O’Donnell, his one-count indictment (bribery in official and political matters) contends that he accepted $10,000 from Matt O’Donnell between approximately February 1st, 2018 and May 3rd 2018 in exchange for hiring him at City Hall if he was elected mayor.
Jason O’Donnell unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Jimmy Davis for mayor in 2018.
According to the New Jersey Globe, the situation regarding the O’Donnells is quite complex: reporting that Matt O’Donnell entered a plea agreement with the state back in June 2018 and is yet to plead guilty to any charges and still profited from municipal contracts after that.
Counsel for Jason O’Donnell said he would seek to have the indictment dismissed due to “gross and rank prosecutorial misconduct.” For the time being, Jason O’Donnell has pleaded not guilty, consistent with his vow to fight the charges in 2019.
Last year, he declined a plea deal from the state that would have come with a five-year recommended prison sentence – the minimum for official misconduct, though Jason O’Donnell never faced that charge.
“These indictments are an important step in our prosecutions of these defendants. We allege that these former political candidates agreed to sell the authority of their public office or the office they sought in exchange for an envelope filled with cash or illegal checks from straw donors,” Grewal said in a statement.
“The conduct alleged in these indictments is old-school political corruption at its worst— the kind that erodes public faith in government and that we are determined to root out.”
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 the alleged conduct – Thomas, Cesaro, and Windish – carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without eligibility for parole under New Jersey’s enhanced penalties for official corruption.
Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000, while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
“These cases reflect one of OPIA’s core missions, which is to uncover and prosecute corruption in state and local government and related elections,” added Office of Public Integrity and Accountability Director Thomas Eicher.
“Three of these defendants face potential mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct in accepting bribes. New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest anti-corruption laws, and we will use them to hold government officials accountable if instead of honestly and faithfully serving the public interest, they betray their duty by corruptly serving their own interests.”