Matt O’Donnell, the state’s cooperating witness in an undercover sting operation targeting New Jersey politicians, 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, an 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.
But the rules didn’t become extreme for all his clients.
“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.
Some of the other names were redacted after an order last week by Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez.
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.
Last June, Valandingham was charged with lying to law enforcement about alleged pay-to-play violations.
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.