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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Murphy sidesteps on plea agreements that allow continued public legal work

Matt O’Donnell agreed to return ill-gotten gains in plea deal, but state hasn’t tracked the funds

By Nikita Biryukov, February 17 2021 3:33 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy sidestepped a question on whether his administration should be entering plea agreements that allow individuals to continue to bill public entities Wednesday.

“I literally don’t have any comment on that,” the governor said.

Matt O’Donnell, who has been identified as the cooperating witness in corruption charges against five candidates and former elected officials lodged in December 2019, obtained such an agreement from the state Attorney General’s office.

That deal, reached in June 2018, allowed the Morristown attorney to continue receiving considerable sums from public contracts even after he acknowledged committing an unspecified criminal act.

O’Donnell agreed to return profits obtained through unlawful action, but the state hasn’t tracked such earnings, and he remains an attorney in good standing despite the nearly three-year-old plea deal.

After entering the plea agreement, O’Donnell continued to bill municipal bodies for tax appeal work and to represent the government as a municipal prosecutor.

One week before Christmas 2019, the state charged five current and former elected officials and candidate— including Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas and former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro—with taking bribes as part of an investigation into political corruption by the state attorney general’s office.

Also charged were former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish, former Morris County Democratic freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty, a Democratic State Committeewoman from Morris County.

Jason O’Donnell, a former assemblyman from Bayonne, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.

O’Donnell and his former law partner, Elizabeth Valandingham, allegedly used straw donors to direct campaign contributions to local candidates in exchange for tax appeal work.

The New Jersey Globe first reported in December 2019 that an anonymous whistleblower contacted law enforcement in June 2017 about allegations against the two attorneys.

Valandingham last summer rejected a plea deal that included a three-year prison sentence.

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