One of the alleged straw donors used by Matt O’Donnell, the state’s cooperating witness in a political corruption probe, to make illegal campaign contributions today was admitted into a Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) program that will help him avoid a possible 18-month prison sentence.
Christopher Brown is the brother-in-law of Elizabeth Valandingham, O’Donnell’s former law partner. Valandingham entered a guilty plea this week on charges of 3rd degree tampering with public records. She is awaiting sentencing.
Valandingham admitted to using straw donors, including Brown, as straw donors to political campaigns as a way of circumventing pay-to-play laws.
PTI might spare Brown any criminal record. The charges against him will be dismissed if he successfully completes the one-year program. He has waived a grand jury indictment and the charges of 4th degree concealment of misrepresenting political contributions stands until the PTI period is over.
Brown had been a union electrician but told Superior Court Judge Robert Hanna that he is currently unemployed.
Brown told Hanna that he has no side deals with the state attorney general’s office.
Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo has 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.
Another deputy attorney general, Trevor Taniguchi, had previously told Hanna that the state was satisfied with the level of Brown’s cooperation.
Along with his wife, Vanessa, Brown allegedly contributed more than $107,000 to various campaigns.
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.
Christopher Brown allegedly sent nearly $8,000 to Bloomfield, $2,500 to committees related to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s campaigns, $2,600 to the Monmouth County Republicans, and $2,600 to Phil Murphy’s campaign for governor.
Brown is the third low-end alleged straw donors in the O’Donnell scheme to be admitted into the PTI program. Suzanne Gayet, a friend of Valandingham, and Erin O’Reilly, an O’Donnell friend – have already agreed to participate in PTI.
Vanessa Brown appeared in court separately this week, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro—with taking bribes as part of an investigation into political corruption by the state attorney general’s office.