The former president of the Jersey City Board of Education entered a not guilty plea on Wednesday in a Morristown courtroom, a short walk from where authorities allege he accepted a manila envelope stuffed with $25,000 in bribery cash.
Sudhan M. Thomas, in a brief appearance in Superior Court before Municipal Judge Ira Cohen, also asked if a pre-indictment hearing next week could be postponed while he seeks a lawyer.
“I was in the process of retaining an attorney,” Thomas told the judge. “This morning, he called me at 7:40 and said that there’s a conflict and he can’t represent me.”
The judge said Thomas already missed a January court date, and must appear on Monday before Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor. Thomas said he had been unaware of the prior proceeding.
Thomas is one of five public figures charged in December by the state Attorney General’s office with taking bribes in return for promises of government work for a “cooperating witness,” who appears to be Matt O’Donnell, Morristown’s former tax appeals lawyer.
Others charged include Mary Dougherty, a former Morris freeholder candidate and the wife of Morristown’s mayor; former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro; former Mount Arlington Council Member John Windish; and Jason O’Donnell, a former state Assemblyman and former Bayonne mayoral candidate.
All say they are not guilty. The next phase, pre-indictment conferences, is where defendants often are offered a chance to plead guilty to lesser charges, before prosecutors pursue indictments by a grand jury.
Thomas’ case is being heard in Morris County because he allegedly accepted $25,000 in cash in the parking lot of Morristown’s Grand Café in July 2019. Authorities say he took a total of $35,000.
At the time, Thomas was contemplating a 2021 run for Jersey City’s council. The state alleges he agreed to arrange to get O’Donnell hired as a special counsel for the school board. The pair also allegedly discussed specific school board projects that O’Donnell would receive.
Thomas was defeated in November’s school board election.
The bribery charge is a second-degree offense that carries maximum penalties of 10 years in jail and $150,000 in fines upon conviction.
O’Donnell has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
His Morristown-based firm has been terminated by numerous municipalities–including Morristown, where he represented the town for years in tax appeal cases– since Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced the investigation.