Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced Thursday that five current and former public officials and political candidates in New Jersey – including Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas and former State Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell – have been charged with taking bribes in a major investigation of political corruption in Hudson and Morris counties conducted by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA).
The five were charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions. In return, the defendants allegedly promised the cooperating witness, who is a tax attorney, that they would vote or use their official authority or influence to hire or continue to hire his law firm for lucrative government legal work. Envelopes and paper bags filled with cash – and even a coffee cup stuffed with cash – were delivered to the defendants by the cooperating witness at restaurants, parking lots, a political fundraiser, and a campaign headquarters. Other times the cooperating witness offered checks from illegal “straw donors” – individuals reimbursed to write checks to the defendant’s campaign in amounts that complied with the legal limit on individual donations.
The following five defendants were charged separately in criminal complaints with second-degree bribery in official and political matters:
- Sudhan Thomas – Jersey City School Board President
- Jason O’Donnell – Former State Assemblyman and Former Bayonne Mayoral Candidate
- John Cesaro – Former Morris County Freeholder
- John Windish – Former Mount Arlington Council Member
- Mary Dougherty – Former Morris County Freeholder Candidate
The defendants who held public office at the time of the alleged conduct – Thomas, Cesaro and Windish – also are charged with second-degree acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior.
“We allege that these political candidates were all too willing to sell the authority of their public office or the office they sought in exchange for an envelope filled with cash or illegal checks from straw donors,” said Attorney General Grewal. “This is old-school political corruption at its worst— the kind that undermines the political process and erodes public faith in government. We are working through the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability to create a culture of accountability in New Jersey, where public officials know they must act with integrity or else face the consequences.”
“These cases reflect one of OPIA’s core missions, which is to root out corruption and misconduct in state and local government and related elections,” said OPIA Director Thomas Eicher. “We are determined to hold public officials and candidates responsible for their actions, no matter their political positions or alliances. New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest anti-corruption laws, and we will use them to ensure that government officials single-mindedly serve the public interest, not their own selfish interests.”
The five were charged in an investigation by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability which began in early 2018 and focused on political figures in Hudson and Morris counties who allegedly solicited illegal campaign contributions from the cooperating witness in return for promised official action to provide him with government work.
As set forth in the complaints, the defendants are alleged to have engaged in the following conduct:
Incumbent Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas, who at the time of his conduct also was preparing to run for Jersey City Councilman in 2021, is charged with accepting $35,000 in cash bribes, $10,000 delivered on one date and $25,000 delivered on a second date.
Thomas allegedly agreed, in return for the cash payments, to arrange for the cooperating witness to be hired as a special counsel for the Jersey City Board of Education. Thomas and the cooperating witness allegedly discussed specific work projects that the cooperating witness would receive from the board of education.
During a conversation about the cash payments before they were delivered, the cooperating witness (CW) and Thomas had the following exchange:
CW: Make me special counsel for …
Thomas: Real estate.
CW: Yeah, real estate… that’s perfect.
Thomas: Yeah, nobody questions anything… nobody questions all of that stuff.
The alleged criminal conduct occurred between May and July 2019. Thomas lost his bid for re-election to the Jersey City School Board in November, and his term on the Board ends at the end of December.
Former State Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Bayonne in 2018, is charged with accepting a $10,000 cash bribe. O’Donnell allegedly solicited $10,000 in “street money” for his mayoral campaign from the cooperating witness. In return, O’Donnell allegedly agreed to provide the cooperating witness with tax work from the City of Bayonne if elected mayor.
O’Donnell allegedly accepted a paper bag containing $10,000 in cash from the cooperating witness at his campaign headquarters. After the cash was handed over, they had the following exchange:
CW: “I just wanna be your tax guy.”
O’Donnell failed to file required campaign reports with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) disclosing the $10,000 contribution. The alleged criminal conduct occurred between April and May 2018.
Former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, who was a sitting county freeholder at the time of the alleged criminal conduct, solicited contributions from the cooperating witness for his 2021 campaign for Mayor of Parsippany-Troy Hills. Cesaro allegedly accepted bribes from the cooperating witness, in return for which he promised to secure more tax work from Morris County for the cooperating witness and make him tax counsel for Parsippany-Troy Hills if elected.
Cesaro allegedly accepted an envelope containing $10,000 in cash and $2,350 in checks from the cooperating witness, but later returned the cash, asking the cooperating witness to replace it with checks. The two allegedly discussed using “straw donors.” Under New Jersey election law, it is illegal for a person to provide money to another person, known as a “straw donor,” to make a political contribution to a specific candidate. At a later fundraiser, Cesaro accepted two checks for $2,600 each – the individual limit for contributions per election per candidate – which the cooperating witness described as “my straws,” along with another check for $150.
During a conversation about the contributions before they were delivered, the cooperating witness and Cesaro had the following exchange:
CW: Johnny, listen, all I want to do is the tax work. That’s all I’m looking to do.
Cesaro: I become mayor, I got your back.
The alleged criminal conduct occurred between April and May 2018.
Former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish allegedly accepted a $7,000 cash bribe. Windish allegedly solicited cash from the cooperating witness for his unsuccessful bid for re-election to borough council in June 2018. In return, Windish allegedly promised that he would support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as borough attorney.
It is alleged that Windish accepted an envelope containing $7,000 in cash from the cooperating witness. When the cash was delivered, they had the following conversation:
CW: “I need you to, I need your commit that I’m your borough attorney and I need more work, John.”
Windish: “You got it.”
State election law prohibits cash contributions exceeding $200 from a single contributor for a single election. The alleged criminal conduct occurred in May 2018.
Mary Dougherty, a real estate agent from Morristown, allegedly accepted a bribe of $10,000 from the cooperating witness – initially delivered as cash but later converted to checks from “straw donors” – for her unsuccessful campaign for Morris County Freeholder in 2018. In return, she allegedly promised to support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as counsel for Morris County.
During a meeting at a restaurant, Dougherty allegedly accepted $10,000 cash in $100 denominations that the cooperating witness delivered in a take-out coffee cup. Dougherty later returned the cash, asking the cooperating witness to replace the cash with four checks, each within the $2,600 individual contribution limit. The cooperating witness told Dougherty he would use the returned $10,000 in cash to pay four individuals to write checks.
The pair met again at the same restaurant, where Dougherty accepted four checks, each in the amount of $2,500 payable to “Mary for Morris Freeholder.” When the checks were delivered, the cooperating witness and Dougherty had the following exchange:
CW: “These are my straws… so I just need your support for my reappointment. Don’t forget me.”
Dougherty: “I won’t. I promise. A friend is a friend, my friend.”
The alleged criminal conduct occurred between August and October 2018.
Attorney General Grewal commended all of the prosecutors and detectives who conducted and supervised the investigations for the OPIA Corruption Bureau, under the leadership of OPIA Director Thomas Eicher. Deputy Attorneys General Pearl Minato, John A. Nicodemo, and Anthony Robinson are prosecuting the cases, under the supervision of Counsel to the Director Anthony Picione. Former OPIA Deputy Chief Jeffrey Manis also supervised the cases.
Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The second-degree charges against those who held public office at the time of the alleged conduct – Thomas, Cesaro, and Windish – carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without eligibility for parole under New Jersey’s enhanced penalties for official corruption.