The former law partner of the state’s cooperating witness in a bribery probe, Matt O’Donnell, has rejected a plea bargain that included a three year prison sentence, according to a Morristown Green report.
Elizabeth Valandingham practiced law with Matt O’Donnell until the firm dissolved early this year, not long after O’Donnell was identified as the attorney in a state Attorney General’s sting operation that led to charges against five minor former public officials and candidates.
Valandingham was charged with lying about pay-to-play violations and faces up to ten years in prison for second-degree false representation for government contracts and second degree misconduct by a corporate official.
According to the Morristown Green, the state offered Valandingham a deal also included the loss of her law license and, a ten-year ban on pursuing public contracts, and a $250,000 fine.
O’Donnell has not been charged.
Valandingham’s attorney, Anthony J. Iacullo, told the New Jersey Globe in June that his client “denies all allegations contained within the criminal complaints.”
“Elizabeth looks forward to establishing her innocence in a court of law,” Iacullo said.
The attorney general’s office said that Valandingham was responsible for preparing and submitting proposals to government entities to secure legal services.
According to state prosecutors, Valandingham did not disclose campaign contributions made in Bloomfield or Mount Arlington, even though the firm had.
The state alleges that Valandingham, along with an unnamed co-conspirator – strongly believed to be O’Donnell — recruited friends and family members to act as straw donors.
The New Jersey Globe reported last December that an anonymous whistleblower contacted law enforcement in June 2017 about allegations that Donnell and Valandingham used straw donors to funnel money to local candidates he was pitching for tax appeal work.
The attorney general’s office 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.
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.
Valandingham’s sister, Vanessa Brown, and her brother-in-law, Christopher Brown, have contributed more than $107,000 to New Jersey candidates since 2010, according to records filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Most of these contributions were in large amounts that appear to match some of the places where O’Donnell’s law firm, O’Donnell McCord, received legal work.
Vanessa Brown lists her occupation as an artist and her residence as garden apartment in Verona. Her husband, who works for IBEW Local 102, uses an Elmwood Park address on ELEC reports. In one instance — for a contribution to Monmouth County Freeholder Thomas Arnone – Christopher Brown lists his employer as O’Donnell McCord and uses the law firm address.
Vanessa Brown contributed $2,600 to the Morris GOP, over $15,000 to the Bloomfield Democrats and their candidates, $500 to Monmouth County GOP Chairman Shaun Golden, and $2,600 to Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty.
She contributed over $10,000 to Fulop.
Christopher Brown send nearly $8,000 to Bloomfield, $2,500 to Fulop-connected committees, $2,600 to the Monmouth County Republicans, and $2,600 to Phil Murphy’s campaign for governor.
Richard Balanzategui, who works at the Hackensack Home Depot, has also made thousands in political contributions. He is married to another one of Valandingham’s sisters and in some contributions – including $1,500 to the Monmouth GOP – he listed O’Donnell McCord as his employer.
O’Donnell connected donors also sent more than $8,000 to West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta, a Republican who rarely faces a Democratic opponent. Large contributions were also made in West Orange.
Another contributor connected to O’Donnell, Erin O’Reilly, donated more than $33,000 to most of the same candidates as the others.
The charges against Valandingham are not related to bribery allegations made against the five former officials or candidates, the attorney general’s office said.