Home>Highlight>Hinting no more shoes to drop, state seeks delay in Matt O’Donnell civil litigation

Attorney Matthew O'Donnell, the state's cooperating witness in a public corruption sting operation.

Hinting no more shoes to drop, state seeks delay in Matt O’Donnell civil litigation

Holmdel is suing O’Donnell, their former tax attorney and the state’s cooperating witness in a corruption sting, for overbilling

By David Wildstein, May 13 2022 12:46 pm

Matt O’Donnell, the now-suspended tax appeal lawyer who has pled guilty to making illegal campaign contributions in exchange for public contracts, does not appear to be cooperating in any other investigations beyond those were announced in December 2019, court documents show.

More than a year ago, Superior Court Judge Mitzi Galis-Menendez sealed a list of potential targets in a state corruption probe, including a list of individuals O’Donnell offered to contact and a list of people prosecutors asked him to connect with in his role as a cooperating witness for the state.

Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo acknowledged that there are ongoing investigations related to a cooperation agreement O’Donnell and his law firm entered into with the attorney general’s office in June 2018.

But in new filings this week on another O’Donnell-related matter, the state did not mention ongoing investigations of anyone other than the original 2019 list.

Holmdel has filed a lawsuit against O’Donnell, alleging that he overbilled taxpayers while he was the state’s cooperating witness in a corruption sting operation.

The state attorney general’s office wants the lawsuit placed on hold until O’Donnell’s commitments in his criminal matter are completed.  They filed an appeal this week after Superior Court Judge Linda Grasso Jones turned them down.

“O’Donnell’s plea agreement requires that he provide testimony at grand jury, pre-trial, trial, re-trial, and post-conviction proceedings,” the attorney general’s office said in court filings.  “O’Donnell, having pleaded guilty for both his and the firm’s criminal offenses, must testify in four remaining criminal matters arising from his cooperation.”

The state acknowledged that the civil lawsuit is unrelated to indictments of former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, and former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish.

“O’Donnell’s role as a cooperator and the attention to that role could risk interfering with the state’ ability to select juries for the four criminal matters that have not been exposed to prejudicial information about the cases,” the filing stated.   “That risk of ‘inherently prejudicial information’ that could undermine the state’s obligation to ensure a fair trial speaks directly to the proper ordering of the pending criminal matters and this case.”

What the state really wants to do is avoid discovery in a civil case.

“The breadth of civil discovery is broad – and can extend into collateral matters – as long as the information sought is either admissible at trial or reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence,” the attorney general’s brief explained.  “Matters relating to the criminal cases may be brought up in the civil discovery process and make their way to the public.”

Assistat Attorney General Anthony Picione argued that the state would have no role in litigating issues related to civil discovery or evidence admissible in the civil action, “unlike its role in the criminal matters.”

“The more such information is publicly discussed, the greater the chance of publicity to contaminate jury pools,” Picione said.  “Such information could also be learned by other witnesses, potentially exposing them to matters which they would not otherwise know due to sequestration and which could later be argued to have colored their testimony.”

In December, O’Donnell himself sought a delay of the civil matter, saying it could impact “ongoing criminal matters.” Later, an attorney representing Holmdel smacked Nicodemo for communicating privately with Grasso Jones on the civil case.

In a new plea agreement released last fall, O’Donnell admitted to committing additional crimes after he entered into a plea agreement on July 30, 2018, saying he  tampered with public records in 2018 and 2019.

“Information that ends up being relevant to this case – including O’Donnell’s role as a witness and cooperator in the criminal matters – could make it harder to select unbiased juries in those four matters,” the state said.  “O’Donnell’s involvement as a defendant here is thus intertwined with the four criminal matters yet to be tried.”

While O’Donnell had initially agreed to seven-year state prison term, a revised plea agreement he signed on October 25, 2021, appears to have acknowledged more criminal acts beginning about five weeks after he signed his first plea — and eight months after he began cooperating with prosecutors.

Despite that, it appears prosecutors offered O’Donnell a better deal that the one he got three years ago: three years in prison instead of seven.

At the time, some thought O’Donnell might have stepped up his level cooperation – something that could lead to charges against additional current or former public officials or former candidates.

The attorney general’s office declined comment.

“As a policy, we neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigations,” said spokesperson Kaitlyn Lopez.

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