Jersey City BOE Pres. Thomas, ex-Assemblyman O’Donnell, accused of taking cash bribes

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Outgoing Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas, former Bayonne Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, and three other officials have been accused of taking cash bribes, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced.

Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas and former Bayonne Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell. Photos courtesy of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

By Mike Montemarano/Hudson County View

The five defendants are Thomas, O’Donnell, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, ex-Mt. Arlington Councilman John Windish, and Mary Dougherty, a former Morris County Freeholder candidate.

They are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions.

Grewal said that Thomas was preparing to run for Jersey City councilman in 2021 at the time of his conduct. He was charged with accepting $35,000 in cash bribes, $10,000 delivered on one date and $25,000 delivered a second date, authorities said.

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 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.

During a conversation about the cash payments before they were delivered, the cooperating witness and Thomas allegedly had the following exchange:

CW: “Make me special counsel for…”
Thomas: “Real estate.”
CW: “Yeah, real estate… that’s perfect.”
Thomas: “Yeah, nobody questions anything… nobody questions all of that stuff.”

The alleged criminal conduct took place between May and July 2019. Thomas lost his bid for re-election to the Jersey City School Board in November, and his term on the board ends on December 31st.

Ward E Councilman James Solomon said that he wasn’t surprised by the charges announced today against Thomas.

“Elected officials who engage in corrupt behavior have no place in Jersey City,” Solomon said in a statement.

“While Mr. Thomas will have his day in court, these charges do not surprise me. I opposed his re-election because his unethical behavior was already well-documented. JC voters saw through him and made the right choice when they voted him out of office.”

Meanwhile, Jason O’Donnell, who unsuccessfully ran for Bayonne mayor in 2018, is charged with accepting a $10,000 cash bribe.

O’Donnell allegedly solicited $10,000 in “street money” for his mayoral campaign from the cooperating witness.

In return, O’Donnell allegedly agreed to provide the cooperating witness with tax work from the City of Bayonne if elected mayor.

After the cash was handed over, they allegedly had the following exchange:

CW: “I just wanna be your tax guy.”
O’Donnell: “Done.”

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.

“We allege that these political candidates were all too willing 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.

“This is old-school political corruption at its worst — the kind that undermines the political process and erodes public faith in government. We are working through the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability to create a culture of accountability in New Jersey, where public officials know they must act with integrity or else face the consequences.”

“These cases reflect one of OPIA’s core missions, which is to root out corruption and misconduct in state and local government and related elections,” said OPIA Director Thomas Eicher.

“We are determined to hold public officials and candidates responsible for their actions, no matter their political positions or alliances. New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest anti-corruption laws, and we will use them to ensure that government officials single-mindedly serve the public interest, not their own selfish interests.”

Grewal said that the second-degree alleged crimes carry a sentence of five to ten years in 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.

Thomas is also facing scrutiny in his capacity as the former acting executive director of the Jersey City Employment Training Program.

In an ongoing whistleblower suit, former JCETP clerk Nuria Sierra alleged that Thomas, misappropriated a total of $16,500 in the form of three checks made out to cash in his name, among other things.

Sierra alleged that she was laid off in retaliation for requesting a state and federal investigation into Thomas’ financial decisions.

Thomas, who alleged that former JCETP executive director Jim McGreevey was misappropriating “millions” of dollars from JCETP to his own nonprofit New Jersey Reentry Corporation, resigned from his role as acting executive director in July.

Conversely, the former governor has laid the recent JCETP controversies at the feet of Thomas.

In an October court filing in the ongoing whistleblower suit, JCETP Board Chair Stacey Flanagan said that the agency is part of an FBI probe, as HCV first reported.

The FBI did not confirm or deny the existence of the investigation and Thomas was not explicitly named as a target.

The Jersey City Council has yet to allocate the yearly budget funding to the JCETP.

At an August 7 Council meeting, Councilman Rolando Lavarro suggested that the council either create an independent investigative committee or use its own subpoena power to investigate the JCETP’s finances before committing to a contract.

A Jersey City Board of Education meeting was cancelled tonight by officials, who cited “security risks,” in the wake of an ongoing fight in which several elected officials called for the resignation of Trustee Joan Terrell, who made comments on social media that Gov. Phil Murphy and other officials deemed anti-Semitic.

The Office of Public Integrity and Accountability was created by Grewal in September 2018 to combat corruption.

OPIA has a toll-free tip line, 1-844-OPIA-TIPS, for the public to report suspected corruption.

The AG’s office has an anti-corruption reward program that offers a rewarded of up to $25,000 for tips leading to a conviction of a crime involving public corruption. Information is posted at https://nj.gov/oag/corruption/reward.html.

Attorneys representing Thomas and O’Donnell did not immediately return requests seeking comment.

Chief News Correspondent John Heinis contributed to this report. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.