while making one man rich

Following here!!The first meeting was on an unseasonably warm February evening in 2018 at Scarpetta, a pricey Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue in New York’s trendy NoMad neighborhood, where the signature dish is a simple $33 entrée of house-made spaghetti with tomato and basil.

Jason O’Donnell, a former Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman vying to become the next mayor of Bayonne, was there to talk politics over dinner with Matthew O’Donnell, an attorney who specialized in the mundane but lucrative work of municipal tax appeals. The two are not related.

As it would turn out, this wasn’t just dinner. It was actually an undercover sting operation and the Hudson politician at the table was a target.

Facing serious jail time after he found himself at the center of a criminal investigation into tens of thousands in illegal campaign contributions, 56-year-old Matthew O’Donnell was looking to work himself out of a jam. He was secretly cooperating with state prosecutors to set up a guy he claimed was “scrambling for money for his upcoming election.”

According to prosecutors, Jason O’Donnell had allegedly sought $10,000 for his campaign. If elected, they said he promised to make the attorney his “tax guy.”

The Scarpetta-set sting would ultimately expand well beyond the restaurant, leading to the arrest of five low-level politicos with details worthy of an episode of “American Greed.” Tickets to sporting events. Bribes delivered in parking lots and hotels. Cash stuffed in take-out coffee cups and paper bags.

But internal memos and interview notes, some which were released after attorneys for NJ Advance Media intervened before a Superior Court judge in Hudson County, reveal this had been no ordinary undercover operation. In fact, while O’Donnell was helping the Attorney General reel in alleged crooked pols, he and his firm were collecting millions in public contracts.

Jason O’Donnell, a former Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman vying to become the next mayor of Bayonne, who was a target of the sting. Sean McKeown-Young | Advance Local Media, Photo of Matthew O’Donnell courtesy of New Jersey Hills Media Group

How it all played out, even by the standards of New Jersey — a state that knows from political corruption — has not only brought cries of entrapment by defense attorneys. Municipal officials also question whether prosecutors went over the line in running a sting operation that ended up enriching their informant on the back of taxpayers.

The records show that while O’Donnell was secretly working with authorities, his Morristown law firm was permitted by prosecutors to rake in more than $6.5 million from 17 towns across the state. Why prosecutors allowed that to happen they will not say. But the firm brought in far more money than it ever did in the years before O’Donnell began cooperating.

He continued to practice law, even after secretly signing a plea agreement that called for his permanent disbarment. In fact, O’Donnell’s own bills, obtained through public records requests, show he was charging municipal clients for hours of legal services on the very same day he was said to have dropped off 10K in cash to Jason O’Donnell at his campaign headquarters in Bayonne.

At the same time, the corruption investigation was far wider than the Attorney General’s office has ever publicly disclosed. In interviews with prosecutors, O’Donnell spoke about cash and donations he gave to officials in places large and small. Among those claims included alleged illegal donations in Newark and Essex County and Plainfield.

Yet the state’s case never led to any big names or the kind of high-level elected officials that typically make for big headlines in New Jersey. No mayors or members of Congress. No legislators. No power brokers.

In the end, a years-long sting operation ended up charging little more than a group of low-profile, hardly known political figures and nobodies — including a mayor’s wife who curiously saw the bribery charges against her dismissed. She was sentenced to probation for minor campaign infractions that carried no jail time.

Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez in dismissing the case against Jason O’Donnell

And in a shocking blow to prosecutors, the charges against Jason O’Donnell were thrown out of court earlier this month. A judge ruled that as a mere candidate yet to be elected to office, the 49-year-old former Bayonne firefighter had no influence that could be bought — further suggesting that this may well have been one of the most ill-conceived, poorly executed stings in state history.

“Where is the crime?” asked Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez during a hearing in Hudson County, finding that the failed mayoral hopeful had no power to make any promises in return for the $10,000 bribe he allegedly accepted. “He had no official duties. He had nothing to offer,” she said.

Indeed, the biggest fish in the whole sordid caper might very well have been Matthew O’Donnell himself, who admitted he had been openly flashing his cash and playing the game for years before he suddenly caught the attention of authorities.
Making a deal

The state’s criminal investigation had its beginnings in December 2016, according to filings in the case.

The case apparently began as a low-level campaign finance inquiry in connection with allegations that O’Donnell’s law firm had been making illegal financial contributions to candidates and public office holders using straw donors — often well in excess of contribution limits.

Straw donors write checks to a political campaign in their own name. But they are then reimbursed for those donations by whoever is orchestrating the scheme, concealing the ultimate source of the money as well as the influence it might be buying. The practice is illegal in New Jersey.

O’Donnell was also long steeped in the culture of making campaign contributions in order to score public contracts — an exercise widely practiced in New Jersey known as “pay-to-play.” The way it works is someone like O’Donnell gives money to a campaign. Should the candidate win, the firm gets hired. The state over the years has enacted statutes, ordinances and executive orders that forbid governmental entities from contracting with firms that make certain political contributions.

But there have always been ways to skirt those laws, while there can be a thin line sometimes between support for a campaign and an outright bribe.

O’Donnell may have came on the radar through an anonymous tipster who sent letters to state and federal law enforcement agencies across the state, according to FBI reports released by the court. The unsigned letters charged that the straw donors would include the business card of the law firm so that the origin of the donation would be known, and claimed that money went to a number of unnamed state legislators.

The tipster was not identified in the court records. But according to reports, investigators later met with a now-deceased attorney who had competed with O’Donnell for business in some of the same towns. Investigators in their interview notes referred to a detailed analysis the lawyer had compiled through public records requests of O’Donnell’s municipal legal bills. According to his data, which was included in the reports along with nearly 100 pages of invoices, his law firm — O’Donnell McCord of Morristown — sometimes billed for more time than there were hours in the day.

By the time subpoenas were issued by a state grand jury in October 2017 seeking records from O’Donnell and the law firm, including bank account and tax documents, it would become clear to him that investigators already knew far too much about the way he conducted business. And soon he did what many do when confronted with the possibility of serious jail time and no way out.

He made a deal.

It was a frigid Wednesday morning on the last day of January 2018 when O’Donnell sat down with state prosecutors at the Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton. The modernistic cube structure with a soaring glass atrium lobby near the Delaware River serves as home to the state’s courts as well as New Jersey’s Attorney General. O’Donnell was there to tell them everything he knew.

At the meeting in the fourth-floor grand jury conference room were Deputy Attorney Generals Pearl Minato, Anthony Robinson and John Nicodemo, and state investigator Kristin Maier. Also there was FBI Special Agent Sean McCarthy, one of the case agents during the sweeping federal corruption and money laundering undercover sting of a decade earlier in an investigation called Bid Rig. That case had led to the arrests of more than 44 elected officials and politicians including the Hoboken mayor, several Orthodox rabbis, and someone who had been selling black market kidneys.

Accompanying O’Donnell were his lawyers, Thomas Calcagni and Eric Kanefsky, both former federal prosecutors with long experience in corruption cases.

According to notes of that meeting written up by Maier, O’Donnell began by “expressing his embarrassment” for his involvement in the case, and personally acknowledging the investigator, telling her that he remembered when she was a patrol officer with the West Caldwell Police Department.

Then he started naming names.

Redacted notes from sessions between Matthew O’Donnell and prosecutors, which were released by the court. NJ Advance Media photo illustration

The records released by the court, which offered a rare, behind-the-scene look at how the investigation developed, show that O’Donnell was quite talkative. He described how he felt pressure to build his law firm. He explained that it was “understood in his line of work there was a pay-to-play fee of at least $300 expected from politicians to show your support and to potentially gain their support for your endeavors.”

O’Donnell told investigators that cash, and lots of it, soon became part of his growth strategy, according to interview notes with prosecutors. He described how he gave $10,000 in cash at a political event at the Grand Café in Morristown “as a thank you” to one official whose name was redacted from the notes.

It was simply “the cost of doing business,” he bluntly explained to members of the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity & Accountability.

It wasn’t just money in envelopes. He relied heavily on straw donors to evade state and federal campaign finance limits. Among those donors using his money to make contributions in their own names were several friends and relatives of Elizabeth Valandingham, his law partner, court records show.

O’Donnell also told prosecutors he knew she wanted to be a Superior Court judge. And he said he could “help make that happen for her.”

Valandingham, a graduate of New York Law School, had a not-so-secret alter ego. She skated for a local roller derby team, leveraging that into a vehicle for charity work. On the track, she went by the name of “Lawless Lizzie.”

“[C]lients have told me that they have more confidence in me as an attorney because of roller derby,” she told her law school alumni magazine, which featured her in a story about her sideline interest after she made partner.

“It’s a fast-paced, full-contact sport that is very athletic and competitive,” she said.

Elizabeth Valandingham, a law partner of Matthew O’Donnell, had a not-so-secret alter ego. She skated for a local roller derby team, leveraging that into a vehicle for charity work. On the track, she went by the name of “Lawless Lizzie.” Sean McKeown-Young | Advance Local Media

She would later admit knowing about the illegal campaign donations flowing like water out of the law firm through the straws donors, who would allegedly routinely write checks on their personal checking accounts and in their own names to various political candidates and committees in places where O’Donnell sought work.

Filings with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, or ELEC, show the straw donor scheme appeared to actually have begun as far back as 2007, and involved approximately $239,000 worth of donations from just those known to be connected to Valandingham. The donors would then be reimbursed with cash deposits by the law firm directly into their checking or savings accounts, according to court records.

O’Donnell’s strategy? It could be as simple as picking up a tab at the end of an event. But he also described “a kiss hello and shaking a hand,” while handing over an envelope to someone with $2,000 to $2,500 in cash. (The name of the individual was blacked out in the notes that were written up of the meeting — though he was clearly speaking about a political candidate.)

In another redacted section, he spoke about putting 25 hundred-dollar bills in a coffee cup to a candidate whose name was blacked out, who had been looking for street money. O’Donnell drove to a meeting in his Jeep.

“Try this street coffee,” he said, as he reached out of his vehicle and handed over the cup full of cash. “It’s good for you.”

In sessions with prosecutors, Matthew O’Donnell described putting cash in a coffee cup as a bribe to politician whose name was redacted in the document. NJ Attorney General’s office | Interview with Matthew O’Donnell

According to confidential internal reports by investigators in the Attorney General’s office, O’Donnell worked his pay-to-play scheme across the state. He claimed to have used straw donors to give money to officials in Newark, the state’s biggest city. He said he funneled illegal contributions to officials in Essex County, where he told investigators he ended up being appointed to be special counsel “achieved through his contributions.” He said he directed money through straw donors to Democrats and Republicans alike, in places that included Linden, Little Falls, Ocean County, Passaic County, Jersey City and West New York.

And in one heavily redacted passage, he claimed that he handed an envelope of checks totaling $10,000 from straw donors to an individual in Plainfield whose name was blacked out in notes from his interview with state investigators. The candidate “then thanked him for his support,” he said. O’Donnell stated he was rewarded with contracts from the city in 2014 and 2015.

No one has yet been charged in connection with any of those allegations.

During his initial meeting with prosecutors, O’Donnell provided the names of 12 politicians he had dealt with in the past and believed he could help build criminal cases against. Other than the names of those already charged, none were identified in the documents that were released.
The targets

Morris County Republican Freeholder John Cesaro and former Mount Arlington Republican Councilman John S. Windish were among those on the list.

In the complaint prosecutors said O’Donnell claimed Cesaro had sought campaign contributions from him in the past and that in return, had offered to give him additional public work within Morris County. According to the complaint, O’Donnell “believed that Cesaro would continue to seek financial support for his re-election campaign in July 2018, as well as for his expected Parsippany mayoral campaign.”

Windish, prosecutors said, had solicited $7,000 in cash for his 2018 re-election campaign, setting the stage to set both up for a documented quid pro quo that could hold up in court. They even had O’Donnell use the term “quid pro quo” in recorded conversations, according to an affidavit.

According to the complaints, Cesaro accepted an envelope with $10,000 in cash and $2,350 in checks from the witness, but he later returned the cash, asking him to replace it with checks.

The state undercover sting led to the arrest of five low-level New Jersey politicians. One has already seen the charges against him dismissed. Two others pleaded guilty to greatly reduced charges. Sean McKeown-Young | Advance Local Media

Cesaro’s attorney, Robert Dunn, said he had done nothing wrong and questioned why O’Donnell singled him out and made him a target. “It’s sad,” the attorney said. “For whatever reason, Matt O’Donnell picked him out in an effort to try and save himself.”

Windish, they said, was asked how much his municipal campaign might cost, a decidedly low-wattage affair in a small town like Mount Arlington.

“Seven’s the number,” they said the councilman replied. A total of $7,000.

“I just want you to promise me that I’ll, I’ll always be your borough attorney,” O’Donnell said, who then was serving as the town’s attorney.

“You’ll always be, most definitely. Leave no doubt in your mind.”

They met at a hotel in Hanover. The complaint said O’Donnell handed over an envelope with $7,000 in an exchange caught on surveillance video.

Windish lost the election.

His attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Mary Dougherty the wife of Morristown Democratic Mayor Tim Dougherty, was running for freeholder. In meetings with prosecutors, O’Donnell referred to her as “Mary Buttons” and that his and her families were very close, however “he and Mary did not get along well.”

‘I won’t. I promise. A friend is a friend, my friend…’

Democratic Freeeholder candidate Mary Doughtery, who received $10,000 in a coffee cup from Matthew O’Donnell

During a meeting at a restaurant, prosecutors said O’Donnell once again employed the coffee cup routine. Inside a paper cup, said prosecutors, was $10,000 cash in $100 denominations. Dougherty later returned the cash, asking that O’Donnell replace the cash with four checks, each within the state’s $2,600 contribution limit.

When the two met again, O’Donnell gave her four checks, said prosecutors, each in the amount of $2,500 payable to “Mary for Morris Freeholder.”

“These are my straws… so I just need your support for my reappointment. Don’t forget me,” O’Donnell told her, according to the complaint.

“I won’t. I promise. A friend is a friend, my friend,” she said.

Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas allegedly accepted $35,000 in bribes and agreed to hire O’Donnell to represent the school district in real estate dealings, according to surveillance recordings of their meetings.

Thomas was also charged in a separate federal case with embezzling $45,000 in connection with his former role as head of Jersey City’s Employment and Training Program. He has had a number of attorneys and is currently being represented by the public defender’s office, which does not comment on its cases.

Then came Jason O’Donnell, a lifelong resident of Bayonne, who had won a special election in the state’s 31st Legislative District to succeed former Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone, who resigned after pleading guilty filing false campaign reports. After opting not to run for re-election, O’Donnell in 2018 decided to seek a return to politics as a candidate for mayor in Bayonne.

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