Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has filed criminal charges for against relatives and friends of Elizabeth Valandingham, placing extraordinary pressure on the former law partner of the state’s cooperating witness in a political corruption probe, Matthew O’Donnell.
Grewal said that Valandingham and an “unnamed co-conspirator” that is known to be O’Donnell, recruited family members and friends to make illegal contributions on behalf of her law firm, O’Donnell McCord.
Valandingham rejected a plea bargain deal that included a three-year prison sentence earlier this month.
Grewal has charged Valandingham’s sister, Vanessa Brown, and brother-in-law, Christopher Brown, another brother-in-law, Ricardo Balanzategui, and her friend, Suzanne Gayet. Erin O’Reilly, who has close ties to O’Donnell, was also charged.
The New Jersey Globe first reported the use of straw donors by O’Donnell and Valandingham in December 2019.
“New Jersey’s campaign finance and pay-to-play laws are designed to ensure that law firms and other contractors cannot purchase an unfair advantage in the competition for public contracts by making undisclosed or overly large campaign contributions,” said Grewal. “We are determined to hold individuals accountable if they seek to distort the political process and public contracting by making illegal contributions through the type of straw donor scheme alleged here.”
O’Donnell has not been charged.
According to state prosecutors, Valandingham did not disclose campaign contributions made in Bloomfield or Mount Arlington, even though the firm had.
An anonymous whistleblower contacted law enforcement in June 2017 about allegations that O’Donnell used straw donors to funnel money to local candidates he was pitching for tax appeal work.
The whistleblower told state and federal authorities that O’Donnell and his law partner, Elizabeth Anne Valandingham, have 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.
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’Reilly, donated more than $33,000 to most of the same candidates as the others.
Jacqueline and Paul DeCamara, described as longtime friends of O’Donnell, were not charged. They have contributed nearly $50,000 to O’Donnell McCord clients.
Jackie DeCamara is an executive at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, reports show, but she additionally listed O’Donnell McCord as her employer in at least one campaign donation.
There are some oddities to the DeCamara contributions.
Court records show that the DeCamara’s declared bankruptcy in 2011, stating that they had $210 in cash.
Despite those filings, they donated $2,600 to the Morris County Republican Committee four days later, and a couple of weeks after that, sent $5,200 to the Bloomfield Democratic County Committee.
Later that year, DeCamara contributed $5,200 to Steven Fulop, then a Jersey City councilman. Since then, they have contributed another $9,000.
The charges against Valandingham are not related to bribery allegations made against the five former officials or candidates, the attorney general’s office said earlier this month.