For years, Mary Dougherty has been an upbeat presence at charity events, business gatherings and political functions around Morristown.
But Monday morning found the mayor’s wife playing a somber role in an unfamiliar setting: A Morristown courtroom, as a defendant in a criminal case.
Dougherty, who is accused of accepting $10,000 in bribes during her unsuccessful 2018 Morris County Freeholder race, appeared before Superior Court Judge Thomas Critchley Jr.
The proceeding, called a pre-indictment hearing, lasted only a few minutes, and Dougherty did not speak.
She was followed by former Mt. Arlington Councilman John Windish, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, and former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas.
All were charged in December by state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal with accepting bribes in return for promises of government work to a “cooperating witness,” known to be Morristown lawyer Matt O’Donnell.
Critchley set a return date of March 24, 2020, for the four defendants. A fifth defendant, former state Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell of Bayonne, is being prosecuted in Hudson County.
“We intend to try this case in the courtroom and not in the press. I fully expect Mary to be exonerated,” Dougherty’s attorney, Matthew Beck, said after the brief proceeding.
Dougherty, a realtor, is married to Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, a Democrat now in his third term. Mayor Dougherty did not attend Monday’s court hearing.
Plea bargains for the defendants could be discussed in court next month.
Deputy Attorney General Anthony Robinson, who represented the state with Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo, told the judge he had just made contact with Beck, Mary Dougherty’s lawyer.
“We’re in the process of speaking with him, and we’ll be meeting with him shortly.
We’ll be turning over discovery and making a formal offer at that point,” Robinson said. Discovery refers to evidence.
If Dougherty rejects the state’s offer, Robinson said he may ask the judge to send the case to the grand jury for an indictment. The bribery charge is a second-degree offense that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and $150,000 in fines upon conviction.
Authorities say they have recordings of Dougherty accepting checks signed by “straw donors”–people paid to make donations, to circumvent limits on individual contributions–after she allegedly returned $10,000 in cash delivered in a coffee cup by the cooperating witness.
In return, Dougherty allegedly promised to support O’Donnell’s reappointment to a Morris County counsel job if she won her freeholder election.
Windish is accused of taking $7,000 in his failed 2018 re-election bid. Investigators say Cesaro accepted $7,700 when he was a freeholder, towards a 2021 run for mayor in Parsippany.
Thomas allegedly promised school board legal work to the cooperating witness in exchange for $35,000 in cash, as he contemplated a campaign for Jersey City’s council.
“I’m going to be vigorously fighting to defend myself and prove my innocence,” Thomas said outside the courtroom on Monday.
He represented himself before the judge, explaining he is seeking a lawyer after his first choice cited a conflict and bowed out. The matter is being heard in Morris County because Thomas allegedly accepted the bribes in Morristown.
Thomas declined to comment about any plea offers, or about separate federal charges against him. The U.S. Attorney’s office charged him last month with embezzling more than $44,000 from a nonprofit jobs program he ran in Jersey City last year.
Asked about Matt O’Donnell, Thomas said O’Donnell was his attorney for his successful 2016 race for the Jersey City school board.
“He helped me set up my ELEC account,” Thomas said, referring to the state system for reporting campaign contributions.
“This was a strong attorney-client relationship we had,” Thomas said. “The rest will all play out in court.”
Repeated calls to O’Donnell seeking comment have not been returned.
Although O’Donnell has not been charged with any wrongdoing, Morristown’s council dropped him last month as the town tax appeals attorney. Many other municipalities also have booted his firm since news broke of the state investigation.