Mary Dougherty, one of four surprisingly small fish political figures charged in the bizarre Matt O’Donnell sting operation in 2019, was sentenced to one-year of probation on Thursday morning by Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor.
Dougherty pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree charge, admitting that she falsified a campaign finance report from her 2018 bid for Morris County freeholder.
As part of that plea, the bribery charge has been dropped.
Prosecutors had accused Dougherty of taking $10,000 in cash placed in a coffee cup by a state cooperating witness uniquely identified as O’Donnell, a tax appeals lawyer with a history of contributing to political campaigns.
Dougherty eventually returned the $10,000 to O’Donnell and instead ask for – and received – four $2,500 checks from straw donors.
Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo argued for an extended probationary period.
“This is a serious offense,” Nicodemo said.
The lawyer representing Dougherty, Matthew Beck, told Taylor that this was a one-time offense by a person who has lived an exemplary life.
“The court specifically doesn’t have to worry about her committing another crime,” Beck said. “You don’t have to worry about her every showing up in front of you again.”
Dougherty, a longtime community volunteer and former Morristown Planning Board Chair, appeared remorseful during her 40-minute sentencing hearing.
“I made a mistake I wish I never made,” Dougherty said. “I promise that I will continue to serve my community and that I will never appear before you again.”
Taylor praised Dougherty’s long history of helping others.
“It was an error in judgment, a significant one, but not one that defines her life. Not by a longshot,” Taylor said. “This isolated incident certainly doesn’t define her. I don’t think the conduct will reoccur.”
Dougherty must also pay $155 in court costs.
The role of O’Donnell, a politically active lawyer who made millions representing government entities over the years, remains a key component of a list of unsolved mysteries at the state attorney general’s office.
His name never came up during the sentencing hearing.
Under that agreement, the state now allowed the witness, 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.
Nicodemo admitted that O’Donnell, has not yet entered a guilty plea and that the attorney general’s office has not notified the state Office of Attorney Ethics.
O’Donnell has agreed to return profits from unlawful actions, but the state doesn’t know how much that is. He remains an attorney in good standing despite his 31-month-old plea agreement with the state.
The attorney general’s office has repeatedly declined to answer questions regarding the plea agreement.
The state has charged O’Donnell’s former law partner, Elizabeth Valandingham, with lying about pay-to-play violations. Some of her relatives who allegedly served as straw donors have also been charged.
Two of the low-end participants in the O’Donnell scheme – Suzanne Gayet and Erin O’Reilly – have already agreed to participate in the state’s Pre-Trial Investigation program that allows them to avoid any threat of prison as long as they remain out of trouble for a specified period of time.
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.
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.
The attorney general’s office later 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.
Valandingham rejected a plea deal that included three years in prison last summer.
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.