Bribery charges dropped against former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell

A Hudson County Superior Court Judge ruled he did not commit a crime

The bribery and corruption case against former Democratic state assemblyman and candidate for mayor Jason O’Donnell was dismissed by Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez on June 3.

The state has 45 days to appeal the decision, and the state Attorney General’s Office said it plans to do so.

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Corruption sting

The state alleged that O’Donnell had accepted $10,000 from an attorney from Morristown, Matt O’Donnell, during his 2018 mayoral campaign between April and May. (They are not related.)

In exchange for the cash, Jason would allegedly have hired Matt as Bayonne’s tax attorney if Jason had been elected. Matt O’Donnell was secretly a cooperating witness with prosecutors after he was caught in a separate bribery investigation involving years of illegal payoffs and donations, according to court documents.

Jason O’Donnell allegedly accepted a paper bag containing $10,000 in cash from the cooperating witness Matt O’Donnell 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 allegedly failed to file required campaign reports with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) disclosing the $10,000 contribution.

O’Donnell and other officials were charged with bribery in December, and he and three others were indicted by a grand jury in February.

The defense

O’Donnell’s attorneys argued the indictment could not stand, citing state bribery and corruption statutes that spell out that the taking of money has to be done by public officials in exchange for performing their official duties. However, O’Donnell lost the Bayonne election.

“My client was not and is not a public servant or party official,” said Leo Hurley Jr., O’Donnell’s defense attorney. “He never had any official duties.”

O’Donnell’s defense centered on a similar case from 2009 known as Bid Rig. In the case, former Assemblyman Lou Manzo, who was running for mayor of Jersey City at the time, was accused of accepting $27,500 in bribes in exchange for promising expedited approvals for real estate projects.

The charges were dismissed by then-U.S. District Judge Jose Linares because Manzo was not a public official and did not hold a public position; he was an unelected candidate for an elected office.

Counter arguments

The state rebuffed this during court proceedings, saying Linares got the law wrong. Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo argued the intent of the bribery statute was not to allow candidates to peddle influence without repercussion.

“The statute unambiguously criminalizes the defendant’s conduct here,” Nicodemo said. “Case law says he accepted a bribe. It’s a conditional promise.”

Nicodemo argued that O’Donnell took money and created the understanding that he had the authority.

Judge Galis-Menendez said that O’Donnell was not someone with influence and that Matthew O’Donnell knew that when offering Jason O’Donnell the money. Galis-Menendez argued that for O’Donnell to have influence, he “needed the winning of a election.”

Galis-Menendez said that O’Donnell’s actions were “at best, wishful thinking” and argued that the bribery statute does not criminalize activity that someone is thinking of doing.

Case dismissed

Galiz-Menendez ruled that O’Donnell had committed no crime. She dismissed the indictment arguing that he had no power to make promises in return for the $10,000 cash payment he allegedly accepted from an informant during an undercover sting operation.

The attorney general’s spokesperson Peter Aseltine said in a statement, “We strongly disagree with today’s decision, which, if upheld, effectively legalizes bribing candidates for public office. We do not think this is what the Legislature had in mind when drafting this law, and we look forward to appealing this ruling once we receive the written opinion.”

In a statement, O’Donnell’s attorney Leo Hurley said the decision “re-affirms a basic precept of our system of government: it is the legislature, and not unelected prosecutors, who write the laws of this state.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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