ROXBURY, NJ – A former Mount Arlington councilman and a former Morris County freeholder are among five current and former public officials and political candidates in New Jersey charged with taking bribes, officials announced today.
The charges against former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish and former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro – along with those against former Morris County freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty, Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas and former State Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell – are the result of “a major investigation of political corruption in Hudson and Morris counties,” said state Attorney General Gabir Grewal in a statement.
“The five defendants are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions,” Grewal announced. “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.”
Grewal said the bribes were delivered in all sorts of ways.
“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,” he said. “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.”
All the defendants were charged with second-degree bribery in official and political matters
The people who held public office at the time - Thomas, Cesaro and Windish – also face charges of second-degree acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior, according to the attorney general.
‘I Need Work’
Authorities accuse Windish of accepting a $7,000 cash bribe. They said he “solicited cash from the cooperating witness for his unsuccessful bid for re-election to borough council in June 2018,” adding that, in return, Windish promised he would support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as Mount Arlington’s borough attorney.
When the cash was delivered in May 2018, the cooperating witness told Windash the reappointment was vital because he needed “more work,” according to the state. Windash responded, “You got it,” Grewal contended.
Former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro solicited contributions from the cooperating witness for his 2021 campaign for Mayor of Parsippany-Troy Hills, according to the attorney general. He said Cesaro 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,” Grewal said.
“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,” said the attorney general. “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.”
Grewal said Cesaro subsequently accepted two checks for $2,600 each – the individual limit for contributions per election per candidate. He said the cooperating witness described the money as his straws, along with another check for $150.
According to Grewal, the two man had the following conversation prior to the delivery of the bribe money:
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.
Grewal said the criminal conduct took place between April and May 2018.
$10K in Hundreds Stuffed in a Coffee Cup
He said Mary Dougherty, a real estate agent from Morristown and the wife of Morristown Mayor Timothy Dougherty, accepted a bribe of $10,000 from the cooperating witness. The money, first delivered as cash but later converted to checks from “straw donors,” was to help fund her unsuccessful campaign for Morris County freeholder in 2018, Grewal said. In return, she promised to support the reappointment of the cooperating witness as counsel for Morris County, according to the state.
“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,” Grewal said. “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 attorney general said 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.’ He said that, 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.”
“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,” Grewal said. “This is old-school political corruption at its worst— the kind that undermines the political process and erodes public faith in government.”
He said his office is working to “create a culture of accountability in New Jersey, where public officials know they must act with integrity or else face the consequences.”
Thomas Eicher, director of the state Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, formed in 2018, said the cases “reflect one of OPIA’s core missions, which is to root out corruption and misconduct in state and local government and related elections.”
Grewal said Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas was preparing to run for Jersey City Councilman in 2021 when he accepted the bribes. He said Thomas accepted $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,” Grewal said. “Thomas and the cooperating witness allegedly discussed specific work projects that the cooperating witness would receive from the board of education.”
The state said the conduct took place 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, it noted.
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 is accused of soliciting $10,000 in “street money” for his mayoral campaign from the cooperating witness. In return, O’Donnell agreed to provide the cooperating witness with tax work from the City of Bayonne if elected mayor, said Grewal.
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