Former Morris freeholder and Mt. Arlington councilman among four indicted in state bribery probe; charges still pending against Morristown’s First Lady

Former Morris Freeholder John Cesaro, center, with his lawyer, Robert Dunn, in Superior Court, Morristown, Feb. 10, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro and former Mt. Arlington Councilman John Windish have been indicted with two others on bribery charges in a political corruption investigation, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said on Tuesday.

Charges still are pending against Mary Dougherty, the wife of Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, speaking in Morristown, Aug. 3, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The defendants were accused in December 2019 of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes –stashed in envelopes, paper bags, and in one case, a coffee cup–from a cooperating witness in exchange for promises of government contracts for that witness.

He is now known to be Morristown tax attorney Matt O’Donnell.

Matt O’Donnell, pictured in 2018.

O’Donnell entered a plea deal with state authorities in 2018, and was allowed to continue doing municipal work as the pay-to-play sting unfolded — with no state accounting of his billings for reimbursement, according to a lawyer for defendant Jason O’Donnell, a former state Assemblyman from Bayonne who is not believed to be related to Matt O’Donnell.

Defense lawyer Leo Hurley told a judge in Hudson County that this deal amounts to prosecutorial misconduct, and he will seek to dismiss the indictment against his client, who pleaded not guilty, according to an account of the hearing in the New Jersey Globe.

Morristown Green reached out to the attorney general’s office for comment and will update this article with any response.

A Morris Sheriff’s Officer helps defendant John Windish, who walks with a cane, rise to exit proceeding in Superior Court, Morristown, Feb. 10, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

 

Cesaro entered a not guilty plea on Tuesday in a virtual hearing before Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor.

“John Cesaro is a great guy, he’s very well respected, and we will very aggressively defend him,” said his lawyer, Robert Dunn.

“It’s a case where (the state’s) cooperating witness got himself in a huge problem, and picked five innocent people and set them up to save himself,” Dunn said.

Four of the five defendants, including Dougherty, were offered plea deals by the state, but rejected them and plan to fight the charges in court.

Some of the bribes alleged in the indictments sought to circumvent legal caps on political contributions by funneling payments through “straw donors”–friends and family members recruited to each give the maximum allowable amount, according to investigators.

Prosecution has been delayed by the pandemic, which shut down grand juries across New Jersey.

Four separate indictments were handed down by a state grand jury on Jan. 20, Jan. 27, and Feb. 3, 2021, Grewal’s office said. The charges:

John Cesaro, 49, of Parsippany, N.J. – Former Morris County Freeholder

  • Official Misconduct (2nd Degree)
  • Bribery in Official and Political Matters (2nd Degree)
  • Acceptance or Receipt of Unlawful Benefit by Public Servant (2nd Degree)
  • Tampering with Public Records or Information (3rd Degree)
  • Falsifying or Tampering with Records (4th Degree)
  • Concealment or Misrepresentation of Contributions or Expenditures (4th Degree)

John Windish, 68, of Mount Arlington, N.J.  – Former Mount Arlington Council Member

  • Official Misconduct (2nd Degree)
  • Bribery in Official and Political Matters (2nd Degree)
  • Acceptance or Receipt of Unlawful Benefit by Public Servant (2nd Degree)

Sudhan Thomas, 45, of Jersey City, N.J. –  Former Jersey City School Board President

  • Official Misconduct (2nd Degree)
  • Pattern of Official Misconduct (2nd Degree)
  • Bribery in Official and Political Matters (2nd Degree)
  • Acceptance or Receipt of Unlawful Benefit by Public Servant (2nd Degree)

Jason O’Donnell, 49, of Bayonne, N.J. – Former State Assemblyman and Former Bayonne Mayoral Candidate

  • Bribery in Official and Political Matters (2nd Degree)

Thomas is the only one not offered a plea deal.  He was indicted in a separate case last fall on federal charges of embezzlement, money laundering and fraud

Former Jersey City school board President Sudhan Thomas represents himself during a hearing in Superior Court, Morristown, Feb. 10, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Dougherty, a former candidate for Morris County freeholder, faces a charge of second-degree bribery. Her attorney, Matthew Beck, has said he expects she will be exonerated at trial. He could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Also pending:  Charges against Matt O’Donnell’s law partner.

Elizabeth Valandingham was charged last year with one count of making a false representation for a government contract, and one count of misconduct by a corporate official, both second degree offenses.

She has denied the allegations, and rejected a state offer of three years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea.

Convictions for second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and fines of up to $150,000.

Because they held public office at the time of their alleged crimes, Cesaro, Windish and Thomas face mandatory minimum sentences of five years in prison without eligibility for parole, under enhanced New Jersey penalties for official corruption, according to the attorney general.

Third-degree charges carry sentences of three- to five years in jail and up to $15,000 in fines. For fourth-degree convictions, maximum penalties are 18 months behind bars and $10,000 in fines.

“These indictments are an important step in our prosecutions of these defendants,”  Grewal said in a statement.

“We allege that these former political candidates agreed to sell the authority of their public office or the office they sought in exchange for an envelope filled with cash or illegal checks from straw donors. The conduct alleged in these indictments is old-school political corruption at its worst— the kind that erodes public faith in government and that we are determined to root out.”

The investigation in Morris and Hudson counties began in 2018 under the newly formed state Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA).

“New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest anti-corruption laws, and we will use them to hold government officials accountable if instead of honestly and faithfully serving the public interest, they betray their duty by corruptly serving their own interests,” OPIA Director Thomas Eicher said.

Eicher’s department has a toll-free Tipline 1-844-OPIA-TIPS. Grewal’s office offers rewards of up to $25,000 for tips leading to convictions for public corruption.

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