TRENTON, NJ – It’s refreshing to see the state government in New Jersey stepping away from partisan issues in the Garden State and even more refreshing knowing that New Jersey finally has an attorney general who’s not afraid to stomp out political corruption.
Last week, Grewal’s political corruption task force announced that former Middlesex Borough Mayor Ronald J. DiMura pleaded guilty today to a charge that he stole more than $75,000 from various local political campaigns.
A few days earlier, Grewal’s office announced that the former operator of the Wrightstown Municipal Utilities Authority pleaded guilty to a criminal charge for using the municipal authority to dispose of waste from his private septic disposal company without proper authorization and failing to report that waste disposal to the state as required.
This week, Grewal announced charges against five new defendants in the investigation of an alleged straw donor scheme that previously resulted in charges against an attorney, Elizabeth Valandingham.The charges stem from a corruption investigation by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) that led in December 2019 to five former public officials and political candidates being charged with taking bribes.
Valandingham, 47, of Morristown, N.J., was charged on June 17, 2020 with false representation for government contracts and misconduct by a corporate official, both second-degree offenses.The charges relate to alleged conduct between 2012 and 2017 at the law firm where she worked.
It is alleged that Valandingham and an unnamed co-conspirator recruited straw donors in a scheme to make illicit campaign contributions on behalf of the law firm, often in excess of the contribution limits, and to avoid disclosure of those contributions.Straw donors are individuals who contribute to a candidate but are unlawfully reimbursed by another person or entity, in this case the law firm. Under New Jersey Election Law, it is illegal for a person to reimburse another person for a political contribution or to give or lend another person money to make a contribution to a specific candidate.
The straw donors recruited in the scheme involving Valandingham – including the five individuals charged yesterday – allegedly would routinely write checks on their personal checking accounts and in their own names to various candidates and political committees, while being contemporaneously reimbursed with cash deposits directly into their checking and/or savings accounts.During the course of the scheme, the straw donors collectively contributed and were reimbursed in cash for approximately $239,000 worth of donations.
“New Jersey’s campaign finance and pay-to-play laws are designed to ensure that law firms and other contractors cannot purchase an unfair advantage in the competition for public contracts by making undisclosed or overly large campaign contributions,” said Attorney General Grewal.“We are determined to hold individuals accountable if they seek to distort the political process and public contracting by making illegal contributions through the type of straw donor scheme alleged here.”
Each of the following straw donors allegedly made tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to various candidates and party committees only to be reimbursed by the law firm with cash deposits into one or more of his or her bank or financial accounts.Each was charged yesterday by complaint-summons with fourth-degree concealment or misrepresentation of contributions.
- Vanessa Brown, 40, of West Caldwell, N.J.
- Christopher Brown, 37, of West Caldwell, N.J.
- Ricardo Balanzateguimaldo, 40, of Bogota, N.J.
- Erin O’Reilly, aka Erin DeMauro, 41, of Lincoln Park, N.J.
- Suzanne P. Gayet, 63, of Boonton, N.J.
Valandingham was previously charged in connection with her role in preparing and submitting annual proposals to municipalities for the law firm to be awarded public contracts for legal services.In submitting proposals through which the firm successfully secured such contracts, she allegedly deliberately failed to disclose local political contributions the firm made during the prior year.The municipalities required that such contributions be disclosed as part of the public contracting process, but Valandingham allegedly failed to disclose the contributions made by the straw donors and instead indicated the firm made no reportable political contributions.Valandingham was charged specifically in connection with proposals for contracts in Bloomfield and Mount Arlington.
Now, we are being told Grewal’s political corruption wing is looking into the botched sale of public land by Toms River Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill to a member of the Lakewood Township Planning Board. We’ll have to sit tight to see if Grewal can extend his anti-corruption winning streak here at the Jersey Shore where many have gone done, including former Toms River School Board Superintendent Michael Ritacco, former Toms River Mayor Carmine Inteso, Van Pelt, Joseph Scarpelli and the list goes on.
During the Chris Christie years, political corruption in Ocean County was given a pass. We’ll learn soon if the tide has turned for the Jersey Shore.