Morristown tax appeal attorney Matthew O’Donnell allegedly committed additional crimes after he entered into a plea agreement with the New Jersey attorney general’s office on July 30, 2018, and while he was the state’s cooperating witness in five small fish political corruption sting operations, court records show.
In a court appearance on Wednesday, O’Donnell admitted to tampering with public records “between on or about September 7, 2018 and on or about March 1, 2019” – after his initial plea agreement.
While O’Donnell had initially agreed to seven-year state prison term, a revised plea agreement he signed on October 25, 2021, appears to have acknowledged more criminal acts beginning about five weeks after he signed his first plea — and eight months after he began cooperating with prosecutors.
Despite that, it appears prosecutors offered O’Donnell a better deal that the one he got three years ago: three years in prison instead of seven.
That could mean O’Donnell, caught continuing to violate laws while serving as the government’s key witness in the upcoming prosecutions of at least three former elected officials, might have stepped up his level cooperation – something that could lead to charges against additional current or former public officials or former candidates.
At a court hearing in April involving allegations against a former Hudson County lawmaker – a judge dismissed that indictment — Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo acknowledged that there are ongoing investigations related to O’Donnell’s cooperation agreement.
Since O’Donnell first signed his plea agreement 39 months ago, he and his law firm, O’Donnell McCord, billed public entities – he represented about 18 municipalities and counties – more than $4 million.
The original plea agreement required O’Donnell to forfeit prospective profits of future criminal acts. Nicodemo said he did not have the amount of O’Donnell’s restitution calculated at this time.
O’Donnell admitted guilt to one count of second-degree conspiracy to commit misconduct by a corporate official and one count of third-degree conspiracy to commit tampering with public records and information.
He was not charged with official misconduct, which carries a mandatory sentence of five years, even though he served as municipal attorney in Mount Arlington and held additional local government posts during the time he allegedly committed his crimes.
Still, Superior Court Judge Stephen Taylor told O’Donnell at his plea hearing that he is likely to go to prison.
O’Donnell’s plea agreement is not binding on the court. Taylor has the option of sentencing O’Donnell more severely.
“That presumption of a prison sentence can be overcome, but it is very difficult to do that,” Taylor said.
O’Donnell admitted to reimbursing employees at his law firm for campaign contributions they made as he sought to influence the award of public contracts, and to orchestrating a straw donor scheme that pumped over $200,000 into local campaigns.
He also acknowledged his failure to file business entity disclosure statements detailing campaign contributions made by his firm.
His former law partner, Elizabeth Valandingham, has admitted to her role in the plan. Her sentencing is scheduled for November 5.
Trials for three individuals snagged in the sting operation – former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, and former Mount Arlington Councilman John Cesaro – have not yet been scheduled. All three are scheduled to appear before Taylor next month.
Nicodemo told a judge in Hudson County six months ago that state and federal prosecutors were conducting joint investigations in matters involving O’Donnell.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office told the New Jersey Globe that they don’t confirm or deny any investigation.
In his first meeting with prosecutors nearly four years ago, O’Donnell provided a target list of about a dozen New Jersey politicians felt might be susceptible to a sting operation, records show.
About two weeks later, records show that O’Donnell made about ten phone calls in the presence of prosecutors, state investigators and an FBI agent.
Court records show that those names have been redacted.