Home>Highlight>Matt O’Donnell pleads guilty, faces three years in state prison

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

Matt O’Donnell pleads guilty, faces three years in state prison

Morristown lawyer was state’s cooperating witness in public corruption sting operation

By David Wildstein, October 27 2021 6:12 pm

Matt O’Donnell, the state’s cooperating witness in a political corruption sting operation, today pleaded guilty 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.

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, 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.

O’Donnell has agreed to be debarred and to a ten-year ban on any business relationship with the state.  He’ll need to pay full restitution to victims and forfeit $600,000 that came from his use of straw donors and illegal cash contributions.   O’Donnell has also agreed to pay a $250,000 public corruption profiteering penalty and a lifetime ban on public employment.

As part of his plea before Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor on Wednesday, O’Connell agreed to fully cooperate with the state. He’ll forfeit his law license at the time of sentencing.

The new plea agreement, dated September 12, 2021, replaced one he signed in June 2018.

Under that agreement, the state 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, attorneys say, billed public entities over $4.5 million while serving as a cooperating witness.

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.

O’Donnell began cooperating with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office in mid-2017.

Around that time, an anonymous whistleblower contacted deputy state attorney general Anthony Picione with information that O’Donnell was using straw donors to funnel money into political campaigns connected with his bid to represent government entities on tax appeal cases.

Holmdel Township has filed a civil suit against O’Donnell, alleging that he overbilled taxpayers while he was helping prosecutors with a sting operation.

O’Donnell served as Holmdel’s tax appeals counsel from 2016 to 2019, billing $373,134 during that time.  The new firm hired by the municipality in 2020, Gluck Walrath, charged less than half the average annual billing by O’Donnell.

The township is also seeking punitive damages.  They also want to hold O’Donnell personally liable for the monies in the event that the law firm’s assets are depleted.

In court documents, attorneys for Holmdel asked that O’Donnell be prohibited from selling property, including his Sea Girt home, before the resolution of the dispute.

Included in the plea agreement is a stipulation that he seek approval before selling property.

On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Linda Grasso Jones approved their request, and ordered O’Donnell to appear on December 10.  But the order is in effect right now.

Elizabeth Valandingham, O’Donnell’s former law partner, entered a guilty plea for her role in a straw donor scheme involving pay-to-pay violations in April.   She pled to charges of 3rd degree tampering with public records.

Valandingham acknowledged, 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.

Records show that O’Donnell told prosecutors that he felt obligated to give campaign contributions and cash in order to secure lucrative contracts representing local government entities as a tax appeal attorney.

“O’Donnell stated it was understood in his line of work there was a pay to play fee of at least $300 expected from politicians to show your support and to potentially gain their support of your endeavors,” wrote Kristin Maier, a detective for the attorney general’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, in heavily redacted court filings obtained by the New Jersey Globe through a records request with the judiciary.

At the time, O’Donnell said he represented about 18 municipalities across the state.

“O’Donnell stated by participating in this type of scheme, he was in fact able to gain additional government work,” Maier reported

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.

“O’Donnell stated that only with some politicians he has committed criminal activity with in the past,” Maier wrote.  “O’Donnell stated some of the politicians have not explicitly asked him to commit a crime, but rather expected it or implied it … giving support to politicians is not always clearly shown by the use of straw donors or contributions in cash, but rather by his payment of a fundraiser or picking up the tab at the end of an event.”

In a January 31, 2018 meeting with prosecutors – his first – “O’Donnell provided the names of approximately 12 politicians he has dealt with in the past and believes he can assist us in charging for multiple crimes,” according to Maier.

Thomas Calcagni, O’Donnell’s attorney, told prosecutors that the “particular names were chosen as they felt they were the most time sensitive,” the report said.

Of the twelve names, four were eventually charged as part of the sting operation: former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish, former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, and 2018 Morris County freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty.  The indictment against Jason O’Donnell was dismissed.

Some of the other names were redacted in April by Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez.

Also in April, Galis-Menendez sealed a list of potential targets in a state corruption probe, including a list of individuals cooperating witness Matthew O’Donnell offered to contact and a list of people prosecutors asked O’Donnell to connect with.

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 Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office in June 2018.

Also disclosed in the April hearing: state and federal prosecutors were conducting joint investigations in matters involving O’Donnell.

On February 16, 2018, at his second meeting with prosecutors, O’Donnell made ten phone calls in the presence of prosecutors, state investigators and an FBI agent.  The names of those not already charged were redacted.

On March 9, 2018, O’Donnell confirmed “the list of potential targets he believes he could be helpful with,” Maier reported.

O’Donnell identified 11 targets, including Windish, Cesaro, Dougherty and Jason O’Donnell.

According to an investigative report, O’Donnell admitted that he stopped filing he state’s business entity forms “since they are made public and show most of is work was coming from Democrats.””

“O’Donnell stated since he is a Republican, he thought other Republicans would see this and not give him work,” Maier wrote in her report.

Maier noted that the investigation into O’Donnell found that the forms were not completed “because of O’Donnell’s use of straw donors.”

Maier said O’Donnell explained that some political contributions were made directly by him and his law partner, Elizabeth Valandingham.

Maier’s report says that O’Donnell told him that he and Valandingham “began getting checkbooks” from family members and friends.

“O’Donnell said that he directed Elizabeth to find straw donors they could trust to continue their law firm business,” the report noted.

Another O’Donnell attorney, Eric Kanefsky, said that O’Donnell represented 16 municipalities in 2017: Bloomfield, Cedar Grove, East Hanover, East Orange, Hackensack, Holmdel, Howell, Irvington, Jersey City, Morristown, Morris Township, Mount Arlington, Totowa, Wall, West Caldwell, West New York, the report says.  He also represented Morris and Monmouth counties.

Prosecutors were told by O’Donnell that he lost West New York and Totowa in 2018, but added Manalapan and Middletown as clients, records show.

Matt O’Donnell Plea Agreement
Matt ODonnell 2021 Plea Agreement

This story was updated at 8:50 AM on October 28. 

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