Is a bribe a bribe if there’s no way you can deliver the goods?
No way, contends former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, who on Wednesday asked a judge to dismiss a six-count indictment against him.
Cesaro, a 49-year-old lawyer, was one of five public figures charged in December 2019 in a state bribery sting. At its center is Morristown attorney Matt O’Donnell, who secretly recorded audio and video of his conversations.
Authorities say recordings in April and May of 2018 captured Cesaro discussing and accepting illegal campaign donations –a pair of $2,600 checks from “straw donors” to skirt election contribution limits–from O’Donnell, in exchange for promises of tax appeals work for the county and for Parsippany, if Cesaro won the mayoralty there.
But Cesaro had no authority to deliver, and O’Donnell knew it, contended Cesaro’s attorney, Robert Dunn. He said the whole thing was a setup, as O’Donnell “targeted” his client to save his own skin.
“It was a joke, it was a sham. (Cesaro) couldn’t give him tax work,” Dunn told Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor during a virtual hearing lasting about an hour.
O’Donnell, referred to at Wednesday’s proceeding only as the state’s “cooperating witness,” pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy charges.
The former Morristown planning board attorney faces up to three years in prison, hefty fines and reimbursements, and disbarment when sentenced next month. He has agreed to continue cooperating with the state investigation.
Although Cesaro sought re-election in 2018 as a freeholder (a position now called “county commissioner”), he had no ability to dole out county contracts, Dunn said. Nor was Cesaro running for mayor of Parsippany at that time, said his lawyer.
Prosecutors never informed the grand jury of those facts, nor did they re-read to jurors complicated instructions given to them hours earlier in a related case–procedural missteps meriting dismissal of the February indictment, Dunn argued.
‘I GOT YOUR BACK’
Influence peddling is illegal regardless of one’s power to follow through on promises, countered state Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo.
As a public servant, Cesaro was bound by a Morris County policy requiring him to to refrain from soliciting or accepting anything given with the intent to influence his official duties, Nicodemo said.
“He used his office to enrich himself, to benefit himself. He violated the county Code of Ethics,” he said.
One recorded conversation allegedly went like this:
O’Donnell: “Johnny, listen, all I want to do is the tax work. That’s all I’m looking to do.“
Cesaro: “I become mayor, I got your back.”
Another purportedly took place at Morristown’s posh Grand Café:
O’Donnell: “I need you to open those doors for me.”
Cesaro: “I’m going to talk to the county counsel now.”
Cesaro rejected a plea offer in March 2020 that called for him to serve at least three years of a five-year jail term.
The indictment charges him with official misconduct, bribery, and accepting an unlawful benefit by a public servant, all second-degree offenses; tampering with public records (third degree); and falsifying/tampering with records, and concealment/misrepresentation of campaign contributions, both fourth-degree crimes.
Judge Taylor said he will rule on Cesaro’s dismissal motion “as quickly as I can,” while noting the decision is unlikely anytime soon. He’s about to start a trial, with seven more on the tarmac.
Another defendant in the state pay-to-play probe successfully posed a defense similar to Cesaro’s, before a judge in Hudson County.
“Where is the crime?” Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez asked in June, tossing the bribery indictment of former state Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (no relation to Matt).
As a mere candidate for mayor in Bayonne, Jason O’Donnell was in no position to promise Matt O’Donnell a municipal tax gig in exchange for an alleged $10,000 bribe, the judge ruled. The state Attorney General’s Office is appealing Galis-Menendez’s dismissal of that indictment.
Bribery cases against a former Mt. Arlington councilman and a former Jersey City school board president still are pending before Judge Taylor. A former freeholder candidate from Morristown got a year’s probation from him in a plea deal.
Matt O’Donnell’s longtime law associate, Elizabeth Valandingham, 49, was sentenced last month to three years’ probation and community service and was disbarred. She pleaded guilty in connection with a scheme to illegally secure at least $600,000 in legal work from Mt. Arlington and Bloomfield for their now-shuttered firm, O’Donnell McCord, between 2013 and 2017.