Five current and former officials indicted in major corruption investigation

Envelopes, paper bags, and a coffee cup filled with cash

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Sudhan Thomas
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Jason O'Donnell
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Sudhan Thomas
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Jason O'Donnell

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has announced the indictment of five current and former public officials and political candidates in New Jersey, including Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas and former State Assemblyman and Bayonne mayoral candidate Jason O’Donnell.

According to a press release from the AG’s office, they have been charged with taking bribes in a major investigation of political corruption in Hudson and Morris counties, conducted by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA).

The five officials are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions. In return, they allegedly promised the cooperating witness, who is a tax attorney, that they would vote or use their official authority or influence to hire or continue to hire his law firm for lucrative government legal work.

Envelopes, paper bags, and even a coffee cup filled with cash were delivered to the officials by the cooperating witness at restaurants, parking lots, a political fundraiser, and a campaign headquarters, according to the attorney general.

Other times, the cooperating witness offered checks from illegal “straw donors” or individuals reimbursed to write checks to a campaign in amounts that complied with the legal limit on individual donations.

Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas, former State Assemblyman and former Bayonne mayoral candidate Jason O’Donnell, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, former Mount Arlington Council member John Windish, and former Morris County freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty were charged separately in criminal complaints with second-degree bribery in official and political matters.

Thomas, Cesaro, and Windish also are charged with second-degree acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior, because they held public office at the time they allegedly accepted the bribes.

“We allege that these political candidates were all too willing 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,” said Grewal. “This is old-school political corruption at its worst— the kind that undermines the political process and erodes public faith in government. We are working through the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability to create a culture of accountability in New Jersey, where public officials know they must act with integrity or else face the consequences.”

OPIA Director Thomas Eicher said the case reflects the OPIA’s core missions to root out corruption and misconduct in government.

“We are determined to hold public officials and candidates responsible for their actions, no matter their political positions or alliances,” he said. “New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest anti-corruption laws, and we will use them to ensure that government officials single-mindedly serve the public interest, not their own selfish interests.”

Jersey City

The OPIA began its investigation in early 2018 and focused on political figures in Hudson and Morris counties who allegedly solicited illegal campaign contributions from the cooperating witness in return for government work.

According to the press release from the AG’s office, incumbent Jersey City school board president Sudhan Thomas is charged with accepting $35,000 in cash bribes, $10,000 delivered on one date and $25,000 delivered on a second date.

In return, Thomas allegedly agreed to arrange for the cooperating witness to be hired as a special counsel for the city Board of Education. Thomas and the cooperating witness allegedly discussed specific work projects that the cooperating witness would receive from the board.

“Make me special counsel for…” said the witness. To which Thomas allegedly responded “…Real estate,” before allegedly stating, “Yeah, nobody questions anything… nobody questions all of that stuff.”

The alleged criminal conduct occurred between May and July 2019. Thomas lost his bid for re-election to the Jersey City School Board in November, and his term on the school board ends at the end of December.

“Today’s news on Sudhan is nothing short of disappointing,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. “If true, Sudhan violated the public trust and his actions are consistent with concerns I expressed months ago when the possibility of unethical activity had been raised at JCETP. We turned information over to the authorities and chose not to support his campaign, but at the time we could never have even imagined the magnitude of the issues that are alleged here. I think I can speak for Jersey City that we are all disgusted with these allegations that violate the public trust, and we are thankful for the Attorney General’s work here.”

Jersey City Ward E Councilman James Solomon issued this statement about the charges against Thomas: “Elected officials who engage in corrupt behavior have no place in Jersey City. While Mr. Thomas will have his day in court, the charges do not surprise me. I opposed his re-election because his unethical behavior was already well-documented. JC voters saw through him and made the right choice when they booted him out of office.”

Thomas’s indictment was the second scandal in less than week involving a member of the Jersey City school board. Only days earlier, member Joan Terrell-Paige’s caustic Facebook post, since removed, calling Jews in Greenville brutes, led to calls for her resignation from both the mayor, Gov. Phil Murphy, and the president of the Jersey City teacher’s union.

Bayonne

Former State Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Bayonne in 2018, is charged with accepting a $10,000 cash bribe.

O’Donnell allegedly solicited $10,000 in “street money” for his mayoral campaign from the cooperating witness. In return, O’Donnell allegedly agreed to provide the cooperating witness with tax work from the City of Bayonne if elected mayor.

O’Donnell allegedly accepted a paper bag containing $10,000 in cash from the cooperating witness at his campaign headquarters at which time the cooperating witness said ”

“I just wanna be your tax guy,” and O’Donnell allegedly responded: “Done.”

O’Donnell also allegedly failed to file required campaign reports with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) disclosing the $10,000 contribution.

The alleged criminal conduct occurred between April and May 2018.

Morris County

Former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, who was a sitting county freeholder at the time of the alleged criminal conduct, allegedly solicited contributions from the cooperating witness for his 2021 campaign for Mayor of Parsippany-Troy Hills.

Cesaro allegedly accepted bribes from the cooperating witness, in return for which he promised to secure more tax work from Morris County for the cooperating witness and make him tax counsel for Parsippany-Troy Hills if elected.

Cesaro allegedly accepted an envelope containing $10,000 in cash and $2,350 in checks from the cooperating witness, but later returned the cash, asking the cooperating witness to replace it with checks.

The two allegedly discussed using “straw donors” which under New Jersey election law, is illegal as a person can’t to provide money to another person, to make a political contribution to a specific candidate.

At a later fundraiser, Cesaro accepted two checks for $2,600 each – the individual limit for contributions per election per candidate – which the cooperating witness described as “my straws,” along with another check for $150.

“Johnny, listen, all I want to do is the tax work,” said the cooperating witness. “That’s all I’m looking to do.”

“I become mayor, I got your back,” Cesaro allegedly responded.

The alleged criminal conduct occurred between April and May 2018.

Cesaro’s attorney, Robert Dunn of Hanlon Dunn, Robertson, and Schwartz, said “At this point, I’ll say he denies the allegations and I will be vigorously defending him against the charges.”

Mount Arlington

Former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish allegedly accepted a $7,000 cash bribe. Windish allegedly solicited cash from the cooperating witness for his unsuccessful bid for re-election to borough council in June 2018. In return, Windish allegedly promised that he would support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as borough attorney.

It is alleged that Windish accepted an envelope containing $7,000 in cash from the cooperating witness. When the cash was delivered, the witness said, “I need you to, I need your commit that I’m your borough attorney, and I need more work, John,” to which Windish allegedly responded, “You got it.”

State election law prohibits cash contributions exceeding $200 from a single contributor for a single election. The alleged criminal conduct occurred in May 2018.

Mary Dougherty

Mary Dougherty, a real estate agent from Morristown, allegedly accepted a bribe of $10,000 from the cooperating witness – initially delivered as cash but later converted to checks from “straw donors” – for her unsuccessful campaign for Morris County Freeholder in 2018.

In return, she allegedly promised to support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as counsel for Morris County.

During a meeting at a restaurant, Dougherty allegedly accepted $10,000 cash in $100 denominations that the cooperating witness delivered in a take-out coffee cup.

Dougherty later returned the cash, and allegedly asked the cooperating witness to replace the cash with four checks, each within the $2,600 individual contribution limit. The cooperating witness told Dougherty he would use the returned $10,000 in cash to pay four individuals to write checks.

The pair met again at the same restaurant, where Dougherty allegedly accepted four checks, each in the amount of $2,500 payable to “Mary for Morris Freeholder.”

When the checks were delivered, the cooperating witness said, “These are my straws… so I just need your support for my reappointment. Don’t forget me.”

To which Dougherty allegedly responded “I won’t. I promise. A friend is a friend, my friend.”

Her alleged criminal conduct occurred between August and October 2018.

In a statement issued by her attorney Matthew Beck of Chiesa, Shahinian, & Giantomasi PC, Dougherty said she had learned of the “campaign finance related offense” Dec. 19.

“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,” she added.

The charges are merely accusations and those charges are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

If convicted, second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The second-degree charges against Thomas, Cesaro, and Windish carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without eligibility for parole under New Jersey’s enhanced penalties for official corruption.

Attorneys representing Thomas, O’Donnell, Windish, and did not return a call for comment by press time.