Morristown lawyer rejects state plea offer in corruption case

Virtual hearing for Elizabeth Valandingham before Superior Court Judge David Ironson, Aug. 4, 2020. Valandingham participated by phone and is not pictured. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin
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A Morristown attorney accused of sidestepping campaign finance laws to secure hefty municipal contracts rejected a plea offer on Tuesday that would have sent her to jail for three years.

Elizabeth Valandingham, 47, has been the law partner of Matt O’Donnell, a Morristown lawyer at the heart of a state bribery case against several political figures.

Elizabeth Valandingham. Photo: New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

Valandingham was charged separately, in June, with one count of making a false representation for a government contract, and one count of misconduct by a corporate official.

Both are second-degree offenses, which each can bring maximum sentences of 10 years in jail and $150,000 in fines upon conviction.

In Tuesday’s virtual hearing before Superior Court Judge David Ironson, state Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo offered to drop the misconduct charge in exchange for a guilty plea to false representation.

In addition to three years in state prison, terms included surrender of Valandingham’s law license, a 10-year ban on her seeking any public contracts, and payment of a $250,000 public corruption profiteering penalty.

State Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo at Zoom hearing for Elizabeth Valandingham, Aug. 4, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin

Valandingham, who has denied the allegations, participated by phone but deferred to her attorney, Anthony Iacullo, who rejected the deal.

The judge granted Iacullo’s request for 60 days to review the prosecution’s documents, which Nicodemo characterized as “voluminous” and requiring many redactions to protect confidentiality of individuals in complex financial records.

Valandingham’s attorney assured the judge he would protect sensitive information obtained during the trial’s discovery phase.

“The defense anxiously awaits receipt of discovery and will begin preparing of this case for trial,” Iacullo said after the brief Zoom conference.

Anthony Iacullo, attorney for Elizabeth Valandingham, at Zoom hearing, Aug. 4, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin

“We have agreed to execute whatever documentation the state wants to limit our ability to disclose the information contained therein so that we can begin the process necessary to defend against these allegations,” the lawyer told MorristownGreen.com.

The parties are scheduled back before Judge Ironson on Oct. 6, 2020.

The state alleges that Valandingham– known to longtime fans of the Jerzey Derby Brigade roller derby team as “Lawless Lizzie” – procured legal work from Bloomfield and Mt. Arlington after falsely attesting that her firm had made no campaign contributions to candidates in those towns.

Contributions were made via “straw donors” — friends and family members recruited by Valandingham and an unnamed co-conspirator, and reimbursed by the O’Donnell law firm, according to state investigators.

The firm raked in at least $470,000 from Mt. Arlington and $120,000 from Bloomfield between 2013 and 2017, after making $45,000 of straw donations, the state contends.

Superior Court Judge David Ironson presides over virtual hearing for Elizabeth Valandingham, Aug. 4, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin

Authorities have charged five others with ties to the firm, but Valandingham’s alleged crimes are not directly related to that bribery probe, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal stated when he announced the charges against her.

Matt O’Donnell has not been charged with any wrongdoing. But defendants were charged charged in December with accepting bribes in return for promises of government work to a “cooperating witness,”  known to be O’Donnell.

They are: Former Morris County Freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty, who is married to Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty; former county Freeholder John Cesaro; ex-Mt. Arlington Councilman John Windish; former state Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell of Bayonne; and former Jersey City school board President Sudhan Thomas.

All except Thomas were offered deals that would have carried jail time in return for guilty pleas; all rejected the offers in March.

Mary Dougherty has said she expects to be exonerated at trial. But her day in court may be awhile off. The state has been unable to pursue indictments, because grand juries have been sidelined during the coronavirus pandemic.

Morristown and numerous other municipalities, meanwhile, have severed ties with the O’Donnell McCord firm.

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