The central figure in a sting operation that has led to bribery charges against five officials is in the process of closing his law firm, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
Matt O’Donnell’s Morristown-based firm, O’Donnell McCord, lost a considerable amount of public legal work in the weeks following the confirmation that he had been a cooperating witness in at least five corruption investigations over the last two years.
With some staff already let go, the firm is preparing to wind down – possibly as early as January 27 — several sources have told the Globe. O’Donnell has contacted several of his clients to let them know that their files will be returned, the sources said.
That has left millions of dollars in legal work on the table, including the municipal attorney post in East Hanover – O’Donnell billed the township with 11,157 residents over $1.1 million in 2019 – and posts as special tax appeal counsel in different parts of the state.
There is speculation that Antonelli Kantor, a North Jersey law firm with considerable municipal business, is positioned to pick up some of O’Donnell McCord’s staff and clients.
A partner at that firm, Jarrid Kantor, said that his firm is looking to expand but that he is not merging with O’Donnell.
“We have no business relationship with Matt O’Donnell,” Kantor said. “We are exploring every opportunity that’s out there. We’re a growing firm.”
That would appear to preclude Antonelli Kantor from renting the O’Donnell McCord law offices on Mount Kemble Avenue in Morristown since O’Donnell is an owner of the building.
The Union-based law is already a special counsel in East Hanover and Daniel Antonelli is the municipal prosecutor in West Caldwell. The mayor of West Caldwell, Joseph Tempesta, is the East Hanover business administrator who received thousands in campaign contributions from alleged straw donors tied to O’Donnell.
Kantor said there was “no deal in place” to hire O’Donnell’s law partner, Elizabeth Valandingham.
“We’re looking at every opportunity to employ good lawyers,” he said.
The Globe reported last month than an anonymous whistleblower contacted law enforcement in June 2017 about allegations that O’Donnell used straw donors to funnel money to local candidates he was pitching for tax appeal work.
The whistleblower told state and federal authorities that O’Donnell and his law partner, Elizabeth Anne Valandingham, have moved substantial amounts of money through relatives, employees and friends who have made large campaign contributions.
Valandingham’s sister, Vanessa Brown, and her brother-in-law, Christopher Brown, have contributed more than $107,000 to New Jersey candidates since 2010, according to records filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Most of these contributions were in large amounts that appear to match some of the places where O’Donnell’s law firm, O’Donnell McCord, received legal work.
Vanessa Brown lists her occupation as an artist and her residence as garden apartment in Verona. Her husband, who works for IBEW Local 102, uses an Elmwood Park address on ELEC reports. In one instance — for a contribution to Monmouth County Freeholder Thomas Arnone – Christopher Brown lists his employer as O’Donnell McCord and uses the law firm address.
The Brown’s live in West Caldwell. Both declined to speak publicly about their campaign contributions.
Another sister, Veronica Valandingham, is employed by O’Donnell McCord. She answers the phone at the law office and has spoken with the Globe on numerous occasions, but refused to answer questions about her own role at the firm.
Two other friends of Elizabeth Valandingham, Suzanne Gayet and Cathy Dormer, have contributed sizeable sums to political campaigns in places where O’Donnell McCord have public legal business.
Gayet, a Boonton graphic artist, has contributed nearly $30,000; Dormer, who owns a floral shop in Morris Plains, has donated more than $15,000.
Dormer declined to answer questions about her contributions and Gayet’s husband refused to take a phone message.
Gayet also has a connection to a roller derby team run by Valandingham, who goes by the name, “Lawless Lizzie.”
No charges have filed against O’Donnell and it’s not immediately clear how he wound up serving as the state’s cooperating witness.