The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell committed bribery as a candidate for mayor in 2018, upholding a prior ruling from the appellate court and finally deciding that unelected candidates for office can in fact solicit bribes.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote the 31-page majority unanimous opinion in the case of the State vs. Jason O’Donnell this morning.
“Regardless of the reason, the provision makes plain that a person’s inability to act and fulfill a promise is not a defense. In other words, if bribe recipients cannot deliver on a promise, the no-defense provision does not let them off the hook,” the opinion says.
“As the Appellate Division observed, ‘it behooves neither party to the corrupt bargain that the person to be influenced ‘was not qualified to act.’”
New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin expectedly applauded today’s ruling.
“Candidates may not take bribes in exchange for promising to give someone a government job. Government corruption is the single biggest threat to our democracy, and my office is committed to rooting it out wherever we find it.”
The state’s highest court appeared to be skeptical of O’Donnell’s defense when they heard arguments in April, with his counsel, Leo Hurley, arguing that the former Jersey City Assemblyman Lou Manzo’s case was virtually identically to O’Donnell’s and his charges were dropped.
Manzo, who was arrested as part of Operation Bid Rig II in 2009, was accused of accepting $27,500 in bribes during a run for mayor in exchange for expediting real estate approvals.
A federal judge ruled that since Manzo was a candidate who did not hold office at the time, he could not solicit a bribe. Although Rabner called that decision “thoughtful,” he did not reach the same conclusion.
“During the campaign, he allegedly accepted $10,000 in cash in a paper Baskin Robbins bag from an individual. In exchange for the money, the State asserts, defendant promised to appoint the individual as tax counsel for the city,” the opinion explained.
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office charged O’Donnell and then outgoing Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas for soliciting cash bribes back in December 2019.
State authorities alleged that tax attorney Matthew O’Donnell (no relation) attempted to bribe him to become the Bayonne tax appeals attorney. The New Jersey Supreme Court decision notes a video recording of the money exchange exists.
“Even if a candidate is unable to follow through on a corrupt promise, the language of the bribery statute makes it a crime to accept cash payments for a promise of future performance,” the court ruled.
“The bribery statute focuses on the exchange of a benefit for a commitment to perform. The offense is complete when a benefit is solicited or accepted, not at a later point. Accepting a payment as consideration for the performance of official duties in the future — is still an offense under the bribery statute.”
As of a result of today’s decision, the indictment is reinstated and remanded to the trial court for further preceedings.