Tuesday, October 20, 2020

NJ politicians facing bribery charges reject prison plea deal

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Three of five political leaders charged with accepting a total of $74,900 in bribes in the form of campaign donations rejected plea offers Wednesday that called for mandatory prison terms following accusations of campaign-related bribery uncovered during a sweeping state corruption investigation, state authorities said.

The five hit with bribery charges by the State Attorney General’s Office in December 2019 are John Cesaro, a former Morris County freeholder; Mary Dougherty, the wife of Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty who once ran for a Morris freeholder position; Jason O’Donnell, an ex-state assemblyman; former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas; and John Windish, a former Mount Arlington council member.

The defendants are charged with accepting bribes in the form of campaign donations from a cooperating witness in exchange for promising to use their influence to steer public contracts his way.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal called the actions of the five “old-school political corruption at its worst.”

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The most recent plea deals were offered to Cesaro, Windish and Dougherty. Cesaro and Windish rejected the offer to plead guilty to bribery charges in exchange for five years in state prison and two years of parole ineligibility. Dougherty appeared by video and rejected an offer of four years in state prison.

Due to coronavirus-related court closures, Cesaro and Windish appeared by telephone during a pre-indictment conference Wednesday before Morris County Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor. Thomas also appeared by telephone, but has not yet retained counsel and was not offered a plea deal, according to the attorney general’s office.

Jason O’Donnell appeared in Hudson County Superior Court on March 3 and rejected an offer of five years in state prison. That recommendation also would require him to forfeit the money he received in the alleged bribes and pay anti-corruption penalties. He would be required to forfeit any public office and would be permanently barred from public office or employment in New Jersey.

The other defendants would also have to forfeit the money they received in the alleged bribes, pay anti-corruption penalties, forfeit any public office and would be permanently barred from public office or employment in New Jersey.

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The judges in each case ordered the plea offers to be entered into the public record.

Taylor has scheduled a follow-up case review for June 11 at 9 a.m.

Attorneys for the defendants did not return requests for comment Friday.

Dougherty is accused of accepting her bribe in a takeout coffee cup, $10,000 given to her in $100 denominations at an undisclosed restaurant, according to Grewal. The witness secured a pledge that Doughtery would support his reappointment as a Morris County attorney if she were elected to the Morris County freeholder board in 2018, Grewal said. She maintained her innocence soon after the charges were filed.

Matthew O’Donnell, Morristown tax attorney, was identified by government and non-government sources as the cooperating witness in the investigation.

Thomas said he had a “strong” attorney-client relationship with O’Donnell, with whom he worked during his 2016 campaign for the Jersey City board. Thomas is accused of promising the cooperating witness a job as the school district’s special counsel in exchange for $35,000 in contributions.

Thomas, shortly after, was additionally charged by U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito with embezzling more than $45,000 from a Jersey City agency he once ran.

That’s two separate allegations of public corruption filed by two different law enforcement agencies against the same politician within 15 days.

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