Judge was wrong to dismiss bribery case in infamous corruption sting, prosecutors say
A Superior Court judge was mistaken earlier this year when she dismissed a high-profile corruption case against a former Bayonne mayoral candidate in what had been one of the biggest corruption deals in the world ‘State for years, prosecutors said.
In a case before the Appeal Division, the state attorney general’s office sought to overturn the decision of Hudson County Superior Court Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez, who dismissed a criminal indictment against Jason O’Donnell in June. He had been charged with allegations that he received a cash payment from a Morristown lawyer in exchange for promises of lucrative tax and real estate work if he won his election.
Galis-Menendez concluded that O’Donnell had committed no crime under the state’s corruption laws, believing he had no influence to offer as he was not a public official when he was trapped in the undercover operation.
“Where’s the crime? Where do we criminalize the activity that someone is planning to do? ” she asked. “Jason O’Donnell had nothing to offer.”
O’Donnell, a former member of the Democratic Assembly from Hudson, lost his run for mayor.
But in a 161-page brief filed with the Appeal Division on Wednesday evening, the attorney general’s office said state corruption laws were clear on the illegality of the payment allegedly accepted by O’Donnell.
“The question in this case is whether our corruption law nonetheless contains a loophole granting immunity to candidates for public office who accept cash bribes as consideration for taking future official action, only on the basis that they have not yet been elected, “the prosecutors wrote. “The answer, based on the text of the Corruption Act, irrefutable proof of legislative intent and precedent, is an emphatic ‘no’. “
The brief, written by Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Kmieciak, said the Legislature “never contemplated” that a candidate could accept bribes with impunity, and that the law it did drafted in fact prohibits such conduct.
She said the language of the law could hardly be clearer, covering any situation in which a person “accepts or accepts to accept a benefit in return for the performance of official duties”, without the requirement that it be. able to perform these functions.
The state’s legal arguments echoed the same points prosecutors had unsuccessfully made before Galis-Menendez.
In court, Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo said the intention of the Legislature could not be to allow candidates to peddle their influence with relative impunity.
“The law unambiguously criminalizes the conduct of the accused here,” Nicodemo argued, telling the judge that O’Donnell had taken the money and made it clear that he had the authority. “Case law says he accepted a bribe. It is a conditional promise.
But O’Donnell’s attorneys argued that the language of New Jersey’s bribery laws specifically defines bribery as taking money in exchange for performing official duties. O’Donnell had lost his candidacy for the election and was not in a position of authority when he was trapped in the investigation, they said. He had no official function.
“My client was not and is not an official or party official,” O’Donnell’s defense attorney Leo Hurley Jr. of Connell Foley in Jersey City said at the hearing. in front of Galis-Menendez.
A similar federal corruption case a decade earlier in the infamous Bid Rig affair saw charges against Lou Manzo, a former member of the Assembly while running for mayor in Jersey City.
In that case, Manzo was accused of accepting money in exchange for the promise of fast-track approvals for real estate projects. But then U.S. District Judge Jose Linares dismissed the charges, ruling Manzo was not a public official and was not in public office because he was just an unelected candidate. to an elective position. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld Linares.
The attorney general’s office, in its brief calling for the reinstatement of charges against O’Donnell, said the federal decision was not binding on the interpretation of state law.
State law offers no defense against prosecution for someone simply because they were not qualified to act, Kmieciak wrote in the brief. She said O’Donnell would have accepted a “benefit” of $ 10,000 as “consideration” for taking official action in the future.
“His only defense – that he was not qualified to act in the way he wanted when he entered into this illicit deal” because he had not yet taken office – is in fact no defense against the criminal liability.
At the same time, she said that despite the appeal court’s ruling in the Manzo case, federal law itself had been misinterpreted.
O’Donnell was originally indicted in December 2019 along with four other political candidates and officials accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions and cash winnings from Morristown attorney Matthew O’Donnell – who is not related to Jason O’Donnell. The lawyer was in fact secretly cooperating with prosecutors after being caught up in a separate corruption investigation involving years of payments and donations.
After a series of meetings with the lawyer that were secretly taped, Jason O’Donnell was accused of accepting $ 10,000 in “street money” for his 2018 mayoral campaign. He allegedly promised Matt O’Donnell that if elected, the post of Bayonne’s tax attorney would be his, according to complaints in the case.
Since the multi-year undercover operation came to light, however, the undercover operation has come under increasing criticism from city officials questioning whether prosecutors overstepped the line in staging an operation. infiltration that ended up enriching their informant on the backs of taxpayers.
Internal memos and interview notes obtained by NJ Advance Media revealed that while Matthew O’Donnell was working secretly with authorities, his Morristown law firm was cleared by prosecutors to amass more than 6, $ 5 million in 17 cities across the state.
Most of those charged in the case were low-level politicians, including the wife of a mayor who has seen corruption charges against her dismissed. She was sentenced to probation for petty campaign offenses that did not result in jail time.
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