Matthew O’Donnell, the cooperating witness in a sting operation that ensnared several New Jersey politicians this week, began cooperating with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office in mid-2017, the New Jersey Globe has learned.
Around that time, an anonymous whistleblower contacted deputy state attorney general Anthony Picione with information that O’Donnell was using straw donors to funnel money into political campaigns connected with his bid to represent government entities on tax appeal cases.
Picione is currently counsel to the director of the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, which handled the investigations into the five bribery prosecutions that were announced by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal on Thursday.
Morris County Prosecutor Fredrick Knapp was also notified by the whistleblower about O’Donnell’s straw donor activities, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Five months later, Bennie Anderson, a former employee in the Jersey City tax assessor’s office, pleaded guilty to accepting a cash bribe in exchange for lowering the tax assessment of an apartment building owner in December 2012.
Sources familiar with internal Jersey City government workings told the Globe that O’Donnell became friends with Anderson after he received a lucrative contract to serve as the city’s tax appeal counsel.
O’Donnell got the job in 2013, after raising money for the newly-elected mayor, Steven Fulop.
Tax appeals had been handled in-house by the Jersey City Corporation Counsel for years before Fulop took over and hired O’Donnell as an outside counsel.
O’Donnell, who has a reputation for exorbitant legal bills, was paid more than three times the salary of the in-house attorney who had performed the task for years.
The Globe reported on Thursday that Jersey City effectively fired O’Donnell in March 2018, around the same time Fulop named former deputy state attorney general Peter Baker as the Jersey City Corporation Counsel. Baker came from the Official Corruption Bureau, the precursor to the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability that Grewal formed after taking office in 2018.
Baker did not immediately return a 3:37 PM call on Thursday.
Close allies of Fulop, who spoke to the Globe on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, insist that they were aware O’Donnell was wearing a wire – something that could point to a leak from the attorney general’s office.
Second whistleblower says O’Donnell wrote procurement that favored an associate
In early 2016, when Fulop was the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Jersey City was in the middle of a contentious revaluation.
According to a second whistleblower, O’Donnell played a role in convincing Fulop to terminate their outside appraisal group, Realty Appraisal, claiming the award of their original contract was tainted.
Realty Appraisal had already been paid nearly $2 million for work that was not used in the actual revaluation of Jersey City properties.
The city had already developed a Request for Proposal (RFP) and was prepared to use it again when the corporation counsel, Jeremy Farrell, forwarded it to O’Donnell for review.
A procurement panel was set up that O’Donnell served on, even though his contract with Jersey City was only to represent the city on tax appeal matters.
The second whistleblower said that O’Donnell pushed for a new RFP that required the firm who would conduct the tax appraisals have two computer software systems: one that was compatible with the city’s Microsystems program and another than was owned by Vital.
Requiring an appraisal firm to be compatible with both software systems would specifically benefit one of the bidders, Appraisal Systems, Inc., which the second whistleblower maintains was the only company in New Jersey whose systems were compatible with both Microsystems and Vital.
While more than a dozen appraisal firms picked up the RFP, the only bidder was Appraisal Systems, Inc., which was awarded a contract worth about $4.4 million.
Several sources told the Globe that a close relationship exists between O’Donnell and the owner of Appraisal Systems, Ernest F. Del Guercio, Sr.
The two share numerous clients, contributed to several of the same candidates, and even have offices in the same building.
Appraisal Systems and O’Donnell McCord both maintain offices at the same address in Glen Rock, although it is not immediately clear if the offices are joint or separate.
Another firm, Associated Appraisal Group, is owned by Ernest F. “Rick” Del Guercio, Jr., the son of the owner of Appraisal Systems, also has ties to O’Donnell. He previously served as president of Appraisal Systems and had been the tax assessor in East Hanover, where O’Donnell is the tax appeals counsel.
In addition to running his own firm, Rick Del Guercio is also the Mountain Lakes tax assessor.
Another principal of that firm is Theodore Lamicella, Jr., who is the Wall Township tax assessor. O’Donnell is the tax appeals counsel for Wall.
The Asbury Park Press reported in 2017 that Wall had forced the resignation of Lamicella’s predecessor, William FitzPatrick, because he had a financial interest in Realty Appraisal.
Others at Associated Appraisal Group also work as municipal tax assessors, including Justin Lamicella, Sr., who also serves as the Willingboro Tax Assessor, and Jennifer Sheppard, the tax assessor in Wood-Ridge.
Records show that Associated Appraisal Group has contributed $18,850 to political campaigns since 2011, including to may of O’Donnell’s clients.
O’Donnell has close political contacts in Monmouth County, where he also serves as tax appeals counsel for several municipalities.
Sources have told the Globe that a relationship exists between O’Donnell and former Assemblyman David Rible (R-Wall).
Financial disclosures filed by Rible in 2016 when he was in the Legislature confirm such a relationship, as do financial disclosures Rible filed in 2017 and 2018 while working for the state Department of Law and Public Safety as the director of the New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Ousted appraisal company sues Jersey City
After Jersey City terminated their agreement, Realty Appraisal filed a lawsuit alleging a breach of contract. They were awarded another $1.3 million for the remainder of their contract, plus legal feels, court records show.
Additionally, the city paid their outside counsel, Shain, Schaffer & Rafanello, about $545,000 in legal fees to defend the city against Realty Appraisal’s suit, records show.
The lead attorney on that was Peg Schaffer, the Somerset County Democratic chair and a supporter of Fulop’s bid for governor.
O’Donnell’s push to award a contract to Appraisal Systems closely mirrored a similar move in West Caldwell, the second whistleblower maintains.
Appraisal Systems handled West Caldwell’s 2011 revaluation, and O’Donnell was the tax appeal counsel.
The New Jersey Globe reported on Friday that straw donors tied to O’Donnell contributed more than $8,000 to West Caldwell Mayor Joseph Tempesta.
Associated Appraisal Group contributed an additional $2,000 to Tempesta, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Tempesta and other West Caldwell Republicans rarely receive challenges from local Democrats.
Until this year, the West Caldwell Democratic municipal chairman was Louis Venezia, the Bloomfield Fire Chief and the brother of Bloomfield Mayor Mike Venezia.
O’Donnell is the tax appeal counsel for Bloomfield and his straw donors appear to be major contributors to Mike Venezia and the Bloomfield Democrats.
Mike Venezia is also the Bloomfield Democratic municipal chairman and was among a group of Essex Democratic mayors who endorsed GOP Gov. Chris Christie in 2013.
In addition to serving as mayor of West Caldwell, Tempesta is the East Hanover borough administrator, where O’Donnell is also the tax appeal attorney.
Tempesta did not immediately return a 5:52 PM call on Friday seeking comment.