Elizabeth Valandingham, the former law partner of the state’s cooperating witness in a state corruption probe, entered a guilty plea for her role in a straw donor scheme involving pay-to-pay violations.
Valandingham practiced law with Matt O’Donnell until the firm dissolved last year, not long after O’Donnell was identified as the attorney in a state attorney general sting operation that led to charges against five minor former public officials and candidates.
She pled to charges of 3rd degree tampering with public records.
Prosecutors have agreed to seek a sentence of probation, but under the terms of the plea, Superior Court Judge Robert Hanna could sentence Valandingham, who once ran a roller derby team and was known as “Lawless Lizzie,” to up to 364 days in a county jail.
Valandingham acknowledged that her firm, O’Donnell McCord, failed to file business entity discloses in Bloomfield and Mount Arlington to a deliberate attempt to hide political contributions made by the firm, it’s donors, and individuals who made contributions who then were reimbursed in cash.
She testified that she prepared proposals for public legal contracts involving tax appeals. O’Donnell told prosecutors that his firm had contracts with about 18 municipal and county governments.
Valandingham will continue to cooperate with prosecutors, forfeit her law license, will be banned from seeking public contracts for ten years, and pay a $75,155 fine. She is not being asked to pay any restitution.
“It’s the worst day of my life,” Valandingham said. “I’m really sorry.”
Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo said that Valandingham has no separate cooperation agreement but asked that be sentenced be postponed for two months.
“There are still some unresolved matters,” Nicodemo said.
Hanna set a sentencing date of June 25.
Last summer, Valandingham had rejected a plea deal that included three years in prison.
The state also filed criminal charges for against Valandingham’s sister, Vanessa Brown, and brother-in-law, Christopher Brown, another brother-in-law, Ricardo Balanzategui, and her friend, Suzanne Gayet. They were allegedly the straw donors.
Vanessa Brown appeared in court separately this morning but Deputy Attorney General Eric Cohen asked that the hearing be postponed so that Brown could get on the grand jury calendar.
Cohen cited changes in circumstances. Hanna rescheduled the hearing for May 18.
Christopher Brown has applied to the Pre Trial Intervention Program, and Gayet has already been admitted.
O’Donnell agreed to plead guilty to one count of second degree Conspiracy to Commit Misconduct by a Corporate Official and forfeit $600,00 he made through an elaborate scheme that used illegal straw donors and cash contributions to obtain lucrative taxpayer-funded legal contracts.
His cooperation agreement, signed nearly three years ago, has not yet been presented to a judge and charges have still not been filed.
“By recruiting straw donors and falsifying contract proposals and ELEC reports, this defendant tried to evade our campaign finance and pay-to-play laws,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “
Grewal said the state “will not tolerate those who engage in criminal conduct to skirt these important laws, which are meant to stop politically connected firms from purchasing public contracts with campaign contributions.”
“Fair elections and open public contracts are vital to our democracy, and that is why we have strong laws to safeguard them,” said Thomas Eicher, the director of the Office of Public Integrity and Accountibility. “This guilty plea reflects our determination to hold dishonest operators accountable if they break those laws and threaten to undermine those critical bulwarks of good government.”
This story was updated at 1:21 PM with comment from Grewal and Eichler.