New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has moved to seal court records in a motion to dismiss an indictment against a former Hudson Council official, augmenting the mysterious circumstances related to Matthew O’Donnell, the state’s cooperating witness in a political corruption sting operation.
The New Jersey Globe first reported the existence of a June 2018 plea agreement on February 16, 2021 after it was confirmed by Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo during a court hearing before Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez.
The attorney general’s office filed the motion to seal records on March 24, two days after the New Jersey Globe sought copies of public court filings related to charges against Jason O’Donnell, who is not related to the cooperating witness.
The Administrative Office of the Courts does not have a copy of the briefs filed by prosecutors and a defense attorney or an order to seal filings pending the outcome of a hearing, according to Pete McAleer, a spokesman for the judiciary.
“There is no order. The brief that was filed had to be redacted because it contained personal identifiers,” McAleer said. “The parties took the briefs back to handle the redactions. We do not have the brief.”
Because the briefs filed by the attorney general are not on file with the courts, it is not immediately clear whether the state is seeking to seal records under a court rule that might “risk harm to any law enforcement investigation” – something that potentially suggests that the state has not yet completed probes related to Matthew O’Donnell’s cooperation.
A state grand jury subpoena was served on West Caldwell, where O’Donnell was the longtime tax appeals counsel, in October 2020, ten months after Grewal announced a corruption charges against five former elected officials and candidates. The New Jersey Globe has obtained a copy of the subpoena.
West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta told the New Jersey Globe that he didn’t know O’Donnell had been entered into a plea agreement under reading a published report.
“I didn’t know of any deals or anything,” Tempesta said.
The courts did provide a copy of a protective order that prevented public access to discovery, something that ordinarily accompanies unredacted confidential personal identifiers and is unrelated to the move to seal public records.
Nicodemo admitted that his cooperating witness – widely identified as Matthew O’Donnell — has not yet entered a guilty plea and that the attorney general’s office has not notified the state Office of Attorney Ethics.
While Grewal announced charges against five former elected officials or candidates in December 2019,
Prosecutors are citing rules governing public access to court records.
A judge may seal court records “for good cause,” but the attorney general’s office must demonstrate that the disclosure would cause clear and serious injury to a person, or that the individual’s interest in privacy outweighs a presumption that the public has a right to inspect court records.
Under that agreement, the state now allowed the witness, widely known to be Morristown attorney Matt O’Donnell, to become the recipient of a considerable amount of public funds even after he acknowledge an unspecified criminal act.
Since entering into a plea agreement, O’Donnell billed government bodies for tax appeal work – sometimes precluding other firms from obtaining the work – and represented the State of New Jersey in court in his role as a municipal prosecutor.
O’Donnell has agreed to return profits from unlawful actions, but the state doesn’t know how much that is. He remains an attorney in good standing despite his 32-month-old plea agreement with the state.
Prosecutors have charged 10 others, including Elizabeth Valandingham, Matthew O’Donnell’s former law partner.
Mary Dougherty, a former Morris County freeholder candidate charged with taking cash contributions, pleaded guilty on March 18 to filing a false campaign report. She was sentenced to one year probation.
Two of the low-end participants in the O’Donnell scheme – Suzanne Gayet and Erin O’Reilly – have already agreed to participate in the state’s Pre-Trial Investigation program that allows them to avoid any threat of prison as long as they remain out of trouble for a specified period of time.
Prosecutors alleged that Valandingham and an unnamed co-conspirator strongly believed to be O’Donnell, recruited friends and family members to act as straw donors.
The New Jersey Globe first reported in December 2019 that an anonymous whistleblower contacted law enforcement in June 2017 about allegations that O’Donnell and Valandingham used straw donors to funnel money to local candidates he was pitching for tax appeal work.
The whistleblower told state and federal authorities that the two lawyers moved substantial amounts of money through relatives, employees and friends who have made large campaign contributions.
The attorney general’s office later effectively confirmed the report, saying that the firm used straw donors who would later be reimbursed in cash for their contributions in order to secure legal work.
Valandingham rejected a plea deal that included three years in prison last summer.
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, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro and former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish—with taking bribes as part of an investigation into political corruption by the state attorney general’s office.
The law firm, O’Donnell McCord, shut down in 2020 after losing most of their public clients.