TRENTON – Pay to play and political corruption typically go unnoticed and unpunished in New Jersey. This is particularly true in Ocean County, but today, the state charged a lawyer who pushed the limits of the pay to play game a little too far. The same types of events have unfolded in Ocean County this year, as new GOP Chairman Frank Holman and his right-hand heavy, Greg McGuckin pushed their weight around Ocean County towns in order to secure millions of dollars in public contracts. McGuckin is facing the threat of political corruption and even extortion charges by Toms River Councilman Daniel Rodrick.
The event that unfolded in North Jersey is similar to the operation being conducted today across Ocean County. High profile firms donate large sums of money to political candidates and politicians. In return, those politicians give out high paying public jobs. If the details of today’s case are crime worthy, the Attorney General should be able to have a field day down here in Ocean County.
Today, the state began to finally go after corrupt politicians in north Jersey, leaving the McGuckin story, possibly for another day.
Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today announced charges against an attorney stemming from a major corruption probe by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) that previously led to five former public officials and political candidates in New Jersey being charged with taking bribes.
Elizabeth Valandingham, 47, of Morristown, N.J., was served with complaint-summonses on Wednesday, June 17, charging her with second-degree false representation for government contracts and second-degree misconduct by a corporate official. Click here to view complaints.
The charges against Valandingham relate to alleged conduct between 2012 and 2017 at the law firm where she worked.One of her duties at the law firm was to prepare and submit annual proposals to various municipalities in order for the firm to garner public contracts for legal services.
Between 2012 and 2016, Valandingham submitted proposals to the Township of Bloomfield to provide legal serves for the years 2013 through 2017.For each submission, Bloomfield required the firm, as a material part of its submission, to disclose any reportable political contributions the firm made to an enumerated list of candidates and party committees.For each year, Valandingham indicated the firm made no political contributions, and for each year, Bloomfield awarded the firm its contracts for legal services, valued in the aggregate at approximately $120,000.It is alleged, however, that in each year for which Valandingham indicated no reportable political contributions, the firm in fact made contributions.
It is alleged in the complaints that Valandingham, along with an unnamed co-conspirator, recruited friends and family members to act as straw donors— people who made political contributions and would subsequently be reimbursed in cash by the firm for those contributions.It is alleged that, in total, during the time that Valandingham indicated that the firm made no contributions, the firm made tens of thousands of dollars in straw contributions.
In 2016, Valandingham submitted a proposal for legal services to the Borough of Mount Arlington for the year 2017.Mount Arlington required that Valandingham certify that the firm made no reportable political contributions in the year preceding the award of the contract.She certified that no reportable contributions were made in 2016, and the borough awarded the firm a lucrative contract, earning the firm in excess of $470,000.It is alleged that, in fact, Valandingham made contributions through her straw donors to Mount Arlington officials in the amount of $7,500 in 2016.
The defendants initially charged in the OPIA investigation – former Jersey City School Board President Sudhan Thomas, former State Assemblyman and Bayonne mayoral candidate Jason O’Donnell, former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish, and former Morris County freeholder candidate Mary Dougherty – face pending charges of second-degree bribery in official and political matters for allegedly 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.
Valandingham is charged in connection with conduct that is not directly related to the bribery allegations against the other five defendants.
The investigation is being conducted by the OPIA Corruption Bureau, under the leadership of OPIA Director Thomas Eicher.Deputy Attorneys General John A. Nicodemo, and Anthony Robinson are prosecuting the cases, under the supervision of Corruption Bureau Chief Peter Lee and Counsel to the Director Anthony Picione.
Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000.
The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Attorney General Grewal created the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability in September 2018 to combat corruption and strengthen public confidence in government institutions.In December 2019, the Attorney General issued a directive codifying OPIA and making it a permanent part of the Attorney General’s Office.That directive established the OPIA Corruption Bureau as the lead office within the Department of Law & Public Safety for the investigation and prosecution of state criminal violations involving corruption and abuse of public trust.
OPIA has a toll-free Tipline 1-844-OPIA-TIPS for the public to report corruption. The AG’s Office has an Anti-Corruption Reward Program that offers a reward of up to $25,000 for tips leading to a conviction for a crime involving public corruption. Information is posted at: http://nj.gov/oag/corruption/reward.html.
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