Home>Campaigns>Appellate court reverses dismissal of O’Donnell indictment

Former Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell (D-Bayonne.) (Photo: Augie Torres via Facebook.)

Appellate court reverses dismissal of O’Donnell indictment

By David Wildstein, April 04 2022 10:48 am

A state appellate court has reversed the dismissal of an indictment against a former Hudson County lawmaker, saying that it is illegal to bribe a candidate even if they hold no public office at the time of the bribe.

“To accept defendant’s argument – without some clear legislative expression to support it – would be to declare open season on the bribing of candidates for public office,” the decision stated.

Former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell had been out of the legislature for almost three years when he mounted an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Bayonne in 2018.   Prosecutors alleged that O’Donnell took cash campaign contributions in exchange for making the cooperating witness, Matthew O’Donnell, the city’s tax appeal attorney.  Jason and Matthew O’Donnell are not related.

His case had now been sent back to Superior Court, where he will stand trial.

Judge Mitzi Galis-Menendez dismissed the indictment in June 2021, agreeing that then-U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares was correct in dismissing criminal charges against another ex-Hudson assemblyman, Louis Manzo (D-Jersey City).  Linares found that Manzo could not be accused of bribery because he no longer held public office.

The appellate court acknowledged a recent bill passed by the New Jersey Legislature that would expand the definition of public servants to candidates in the context of accepting bribes.

“This bill has no bearing on our decision.   It reveals only the Legislature’s desire to avoid future decisions like Manzo,” the decision said.

The appellate judges —  Clarkson Fisher, Patrick DeAlmeida and Morris Smith – said that prior attempts to pass the bill did not suggest that the bribery statute was inapplicable to candidates.

“It therefore runs counter to everything our courts have ever said about bribery to conclude that somehow the legislature wanted to treat bribe receivers better than bribe givers in this or any other instance,” the decision stated.

It will now be up to O’Donnell and his attorney, Leo Hurley of Connell Foley, to decide if they want to appeal this ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Matthew O’Donnell,  the state’s cooperating witness in a political corruption sting operation, pleaded guilty in October on two counts connected to his use of straw donors to obtain public contracts for his law firm, O’Donnell McCord, that could require him to serve three years in a state prison.

Matt O’Donnell admitted to illegal activities regarding his work as the Mount Arlington borough attorney and as a tax appeal attorney for Morristown, Bloomfield and Morris County.

In a revised plea agreement last month, Matt O’Donnell admitted guilt to one count of second-degree conspiracy to commit misconduct by a corporate official and one count of third-degree conspiracy to commit tampering with public records and information.  While the statutory maximum sentence is 15 years, the attorney general’s office has agreed to a deal that requires O’Donnell to serve two three-year prison sentences concurrently.

“We’re grateful that the appellate court today confirmed candidates for office may not take bribes in exchange for promising to perform official duties if they are elected,” said acting Attorney General Matt Platkin.  “That commonsense prohibition is embodied in the plain language of our law, and I remain committed to pursuing these cases whenever they arise.”

This story was updated at 3:06 PM with comment from Platkin.

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