Ex-NJ assemblyman urges court to toss bribery charge
It was May 3, 2018, at Jason O’Donnell’s campaign headquarters on Broadway in Bayonne.
O’Donnell, a former state assemblyman, was running to become Bayonne’s mayor. He met with a New Jersey tax attorney who was secretly acting as a cooperating witness for state prosecutors, according to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.
Prosecutors allege that the attorney previously told O’Donnell he wanted to be hired by Bayonne. At the O’Donnell campaign office, prosecutors say, the attorney handed O’Donnell $10,000 in cash in a Baskin-Robbins bag and the men had the following exchange:
“I just wanna be your tax guy,” the attorney said.
“Done,” O’Donnell said.
Now a judge will decide: Is that a bribe?
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office says it is. Officials arrested O’Donnell, a Democrat, in December 2019 along with four others they claim took cash bribes from the same attorney.
O’Donnell’s lawyer, Leo Hurley, does not concede that the exchange happened. But he argues in court filings that O’Donnell cannot be charged with bribery because he was a private citizen when he was running for mayor in 2018. O’Donnell was an assemblyman from 2010 to 2016, and he lost the mayor’s race.
The state Superior Court judge overseeing the case, Mitzy Galis-Menendez, is expected to decide June 3 whether O’Donnell’s indictment should be tossed. A ruling in O’Donnell’s favor would put a dent in one of the state’s most high-profile public corruption stings in years.
‘Bid rig’ echoes
O’Donnell’s argument in this case is similar to one made by another failed Hudson County mayoral candidate, Lou Manzo.
Manzo was running to become Jersey City’s mayor in 2009 when he met with Solomon Dwek, a developer whose criminal activity led him to turn informant for the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Chris Christie. Prosecutors said Manzo, through a middleman, took nearly $30,000 from Dwek and agreed to take more. In exchange, Manzo promised that if he became mayor he would speed approvals for Dwek’s purported real estate project.
Manzo lost the mayor’s race that May. Two months later he was one of dozens arrested in the Dwek sting, dubbed Operation Bid Rig III. But a federal judge, Jose Linares, twice threw out the government’s case against Manzo because Manzo was not a public official when he met with Dwek.
New Jersey’s bribery statute bans the solicitation, acceptance or agreement to accept “any benefit as consideration for a violation of an official duty of a public servant or party official, or any benefit as consideration for the performance of official duties.”
Linares said this in one of his rulings in the Manzo case: “Since a candidate cannot perform official duties until elected, the court does not find that this provision on its face applies to candidates that are never elected to public office.”
O’Donnell’s motion to dismiss his indictment hinges on that argument.
O’Donnell “lost the election in question, and subsequently never assumed any public office or position as a public servant or party official,” Hurley’s brief reads. “Defendant, thus, never obtained ‘official duties’ that he could perform.”
After Manzo’s indictments were thrown out, state lawmakers introduced bills to specify that the bribery statute applies to candidates for public office. The bills were never approved, which Hurley argues shows the Legislature decided to retain the “narrow construction” of the law.
Grewal’s office says O’Donnell’s argument is preposterous.
In a brief responding to Hurley’s request for the indictment to be dismissed, prosecutors say Hurley relies too heavily on Linares’s Manzo rulings, which they say were wrongly decided.
O’Donnell’s claims that he cannot be charged with bribery because he had no official duties at the time of the alleged bribe “ring hollow,” prosecutors say.
“It is immaterial that the defendant ultimately lost his election and never accrued the power to make the state’s cooperating witness tax attorney for Bayonne,” their brief says. “He solicited and received a bribe while he had the apparent ability to bring about or contribute to a desired end.”
Prosecutors warn that a decision in O’Donnell’s favor would have an “unimaginable effect” on New Jersey’s institutions, allowing candidates for public office to peddle influence with impunity.
“Candidates with unlawful intentions can establish campaign treasuries to enrich themselves,” it argues. “Nefarious players can solicit and accept all manner of cash and other things of value in exchange for future favors with little repercussion.”
The cooperating witness in this case is Matt O’Donnell, who formerly ran a Morristown law firm that earned millions from public contracts. He and Jason O’Donnell are not related.
Grewal’s office is overseeing a separate investigation into campaign donations made by friends and family members of Matt O’Donnell’s former law partner to towns where the law firm had contracts. The campaign contributions were illegal straw donations, meant to mask attempts by Matt O’Donnell’s law firm to curry favor with officials awarding contracts, Grewal’s office says.
The law partner has already pleaded guilty to falsifying records to conceal illegal donations.
Hurley and a Grewal spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Terrence T. McDonald is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.