One aspiring politician is accused of getting her bribe in a coffee cup chock-full of $100 bills. Another, a mayoral hopeful, of receiving his at his campaign headquarters in a bag stuffed with $10,000.
There was also a councilman who accepted a cash-stuffed envelope from a man who explicitly asked for a “quid pro quo,” according to a court document, and an official who funneled thousands of dollars into a charity he ran, then diverted the money for personal use.
These were among the allegations made in the eight political corruption cases announced by New Jersey prosecutors over five days this month. Taken together, the accusations offered a striking picture of entrenched small-time corruption at a time when questions of impropriety consume the national political debate.
“To say we have a long and sordid history of corruption in this state would be understating it,” said New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal.
All but one of those charged were current or former elected officials or political candidates, and the accused included both Republicans and Democrats. They included a small-town mayor, a school board president and a man trying to hold on to his position as county freeholder.
‘I just wanna be your tax guy.’ ‘Done.’
In some ways, they were charged with crimes that were remarkably old-school. Between May and July of 2019, Jersey City’s school board president, Sudhan Thomas, was given $35,000 in cash in envelopes, according to a criminal complaint. One envelope filled with $25,000 was handed off in a restaurant parking lot.
In return for funds for his reelection campaign, Thomas offered to make the briber, who became a cooperating witness, the school board’s real estate counsel, the complaint said.
“Real estate … that’s perfect,” the witness said at one meeting, according to the complaint.
“Yeah, nobody questions anything,” Thomas said, the complaint said.
Thomas was one of five politicians linked to a monthslong bribery investigation that involved the same unnamed witness and several sting operations. Even at a time when the attorney general has made fighting misconduct and restoring public trust a focus of his office, Grewal said that some of the accusations made last week stood out for their boldness.
“I’m no longer shocked by what I see from this chair,” Grewal said. “But I’m still occasionally surprised that somebody would so brazenly say, ‘I’ll give you this position if you make this donation,’ and nobody questions that stuff.”
All five politicians caught in the stings were charged with second-degree bribery and face up to 10 years in prison. Three, who were holding public office at the time, faced an additional charge of taking of an unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior.
In a statement, Thomas, a Democrat in New Jersey’s second-largest city, denied the allegations and accused Grewal’s office of unfairly targeting him for suing the state for $2.1 billion he said the Jersey City school district was owed.
In another sting operation in neighboring Bayonne, Jason O’Donnell, a former state assemblyman who was running for mayor, requested $10,000 in “street money” from the witness during a dinner in New York City, according to a criminal complaint.
The witness eventually passed the money to O’Donnell in a white paper bag at a meeting in O’Donnell’s campaign headquarters in May 2018, the complaint said.
The complaint said that the witness reiterated, “I just wanna be your tax guy,” to which O’Donnell replied, “Done.”
That same month, John Windish accepted a $7,000 cash bribe during a bid to be reelected to the borough council of Mount Arlington, a community of 5,000 in the New York City suburbs, prosecutors said.
After handing over a money-stuffed envelope, the witness said he needed Windish to “commit that I’m your borough attorney” and give him more work, according to a criminal complaint.
“You got it,” Windish replied, according to the complaint.
O’Donnell denied the allegations and his lawyer said he would plead not guilty. Windish could not be reached for comment.
A coffee cup full of cash
Not every politician caught in the stings was happy to be handed stacks of cash. Some of them, prosecutors said, preferred checks.
In May 2018, John Cesaro was a freeholder in Morris County, a wealthy suburban locale about 30 miles west of New York City. Mary Dougherty wanted to be one. (A board of freeholders in New Jersey is akin to a group of county supervisors elsewhere.)
According to a criminal complaint, her $10,000 payoff from the witness at first came in a takeout coffee cup packed with $100 bills.
In return, the witness wanted Dougherty’s support for him keeping his position as a counsel to Morris County if she won, the complaint said, to which she agreed.
But Dougherty later returned the cash, saying she wanted checks instead, the complaint said. To avoid violating campaign financing limits, Dougherty is accused of discussing with the witness that the money should be given through straw donors — individuals who contribute to a candidate but are later reimbursed by someone else for their contribution. Such donations are illegal in New Jersey.
It was the same for Cesaro, who is also accused of accepting $10,000 in cash and then later asking for checks, at one point saying that he did not know how to “pass” the cash around.
In one meeting, he appeared to make his understanding that the checks would come from straw donors clear, the complaint said.
“It’s not like they’re going to have to use their money,” he told the witness of potential donors, according to the complaint. “You know what I’m saying?
Dougherty and Cesaro both denied the allegations.
The mayor who money laundered
Before he was elected mayor in 2015, Ronald J. DiMura worked for years as the treasurer for the local Democratic Party and on local campaigns in the borough of Middlesex, a small community 30 miles southwest of Manhattan.
Those financial positions enabled DiMura, 63, to steal $190,000 from campaigns, then use a charity he operated to launder the money, according to an indictment.
Between January 2013 and June 2019, DiMura made “purported donations” from the campaigns to the charity, prosecutors said.
But the nonprofit only spent a “small fraction” of that money on charitable deeds, with the rest diverted into DiMura’s bank account or a business account that he controlled, the indictment said.
DiMura, who is also accused of soliciting a $10,000 donation from a developer when he was mayor, was charged with nine counts, including theft by deception, money laundering and official misconduct and tampering with public records.
The most serious charges have a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, and he could be fined up to $500,000 on the money-laundering charge.
DiMura was set to leave office at the end of the year after being voted out. But he resigned on Thursday, ahead of schedule, according to a statement from Middlesex’s borough council.
DiMura’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
He took money meant to clean up his town
Carl Washington Jr., a councilman in Penns Grove in southern New Jersey, worked as a local coordinator for a statewide anti-littering initiative, managing funds intended to help ensure that parks and other public areas stayed pristine.
But prosecutors accused Washington, 46, of stealing more than $8,000 from the program, saying he doctored paperwork in order to obtain fraudulent checks.
The checks were made out to organizations that were run by Washington and several associates, including his nephew, Lavar H. Ledbetter, prosecutors said. Those associates cashed the checks, then returned some of the money to Washington and Ledbetter, 31, prosecutors said.
Both men were charged with official misconduct, conspiracy, theft by unlawful taking, and misapplication of entrusted property.
Washington did not respond to requests for comment but told NJ.com that he and Ledbetter were innocent, claiming the allegations were levied against him by a political rival.