MORRIS COUNTY — Attorney General Gurbir S. 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, 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.
- Christopher Brown, 37, of West Caldwell.
- Ricardo Balanzateguimaldo, 40, of Bogota.
- Erin O’Reilly, aka Erin DeMauro, 41, of Lincoln Park.
- Suzanne P. Gayet, 63, of Boonton.
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.
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 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, they allegedly promised the cooperating witness – 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 and the defendants charged as straw donors are charged in connection with conduct that is not directly related to the bribery allegations against those 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. Deputy Attorney General Pearl Minato, Acting OPIA Chief of Staff, previously served as lead attorney on the investigation.
Fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
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 by clicking here.
Editor’s Note: An arrest or the signing of a criminal complaint is merely an accusation. Despite this accusation, the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until he or she has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.