NJ politicians took cash bribes in paper bags and coffee cup, state says
State prosecutors have busted a bunch of unsuccessful politicians on charges that they were caught accepting more than $74,000 in cash bribes.
Calling it "old-school political corruption at its worst," state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal revealed Thursday that a tax attorney who was working undercover as a cooperating witness offered the politicians the loot in paper bags, envelopes and even a coffee cup in exchange for government work.
The anti-corruption sting snared both Democrats and Republicans in Morris and Hudson counties including lame-duck Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas and former Democratic Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell.
State prosecutors said Thomas, who was preparing to run for City Council this summer, accepted $10,000 and $25,000 in cash in return for making the cooperating witness a special counsel for the school board.
Prosecutors provided a transcript of a conversation that the two reportedly had:
ATTORNEY: Make me special counsel for ...
THOMAS: Real estate.
ATTORNEY: Yeah, real estate… that’s perfect.
THOMAS: Yeah, nobody questions anything… nobody questions all of that stuff.
Thomas lost his bid for re-election in November and his term on the board expires at the end of this month.
An attorney for Thomas could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
O’Donnell, the former assemblyman and a former public safety director of Bayonne, was running for mayor of Bayonne in April and May 2018 when he accepted a $10,000 cash bribe from the cooperating witness, promising him a job if elected.
“I just wanna be your tax guy,” the attorney said, according to a transcript provided by the state Attorney General’s Office.
“Done,” O’Donnell reportedly replied.
Prosecutors said O’Donnell never reported the cash contribution to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. His mayoral bid was unsuccessful.
An attorney said O'Donnell intends to plead not guilty
"Jason O'Donnell has dedicated his life to serving his community, has always conducted himself in a manner that makes his family and friends proud, and has consistently and vigorously fought for their best interests," Leo J. Hurley Jr., of the Jersey City firm Connell Foley, said in a written statement, adding that O'Donnell intended to "contest these allegations with equal vigor."
Then-Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro accepted $10,000 in cash and $2,350 in checks from the cooperating witness for his 2021 campaign for mayor of Parsippany-Troy Hills, state officials said.
Prosecutors say Cesaro, a Republican, initially returned the cash and asked the attorney to provide him the money in checks instead and discussed using “straw donors,” an illegal practice of paying other people to make political contributions in order to skirt the legal limits on the amount an individual can donate in an election.
Prosecutors say Cesaro later accepted two $2,600 checks , which the cooperating witnessed described as “my straws” and another check for $150.
“Johnny, listen, all I want to do is the tax work. That’s all I’m looking to do,” prosecutors quoted the cooperating witness as saying.
“I become mayor, I got your back,” Cesaro reportedly replied.
Cesaro lost the GOP primary for a third term on the freeholder board.
Robert Dunn, an attorney for Cesaro, said Thursday that his client denies the allegations.
"We will be defending him as aggressively and vigorously as we can," Dunn, with the Morristown firm Hanlon Dunn Robertson Schwartz, said.
Former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish is charged with accepting a $7,000 cash bribe while unsuccessfully running for re-election as a Republican in June 2018. The legal cash limit is $200 per contributor per election.
“I need you to, I need your commit that I’m your borough attorney and I need more work, John,” the cooperating witness was quoted as saying by prosecutors.
“You got it,” Windish reportedly replied.
New Jersey 101.5 did not know Thursday whether Windish had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.
Mary Dougherty, a real estate agent and the wife of Morristown’s Democratic mayor, is charged with accepting a $10,000 cash bribe while she was running for freeholder of Morris County in August and October of 2018.
Prosecutors said she promised the attorney that she would reappoint him as counsel if she were elected. She lost.
Prosecutors said Dougherty accepted the bribe in $100 bills delivered in a paper coffee cup at a restaurant but she later returned the cash and asked the attorney to give it back in four checks.
Prosecutors said the attorney told Dougherty that he would use the $10,000 to pay straw donors. He returned with the checks during a second meeting at the restaurant.
“These are my straws,” the cooperating witness was quoted as saying. “So I just need your support for my reappointment. Don’t forget me.”
“I won’t,” Dougherty reportedly replied. “I promise. A friend is a friend, my friend.”
In a written statement released by attorney Matthew E. Beck, Dougherty denied the allegations and expected to win in court.
"I learned today that I have been charged with campaign finance related offenses in connection with my 2018 campaign for Morris County freeholder," she said. "While I intend to defend against these allegations in the courtroom and not the press, I will say that I am a person of great integrity and conscience and I look forward to presenting my side of the story after which I expect to vindicated."
If found guilty of second-degree bribery, Dougherty and O'Donnell face sentences of five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000. If any of the three others are found guilty, they face mandatory minimum sentences of five years in prison without chance for parole because they would have been in office at the time of the offenses.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to include statements from the accused and their attorneys.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.