The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously to reinstate a bribery charge against a North Jersey lawmaker who the state alleges accepted a bribe during his attempt to become mayor of Bayonne.
The decision handed down on Aug. 7 means a 2019 indictment against former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, dismissed by a trial court judge in 2021, may be reinstated. Prosecutors allege that in 2018, O’Donnell took $10,000 cash from the state’s cooperating witness, Matt O’Donnell, in exchange for a promise of legal work.
In its summary, Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote “The bribery statute applies to any ‘person’ who accepts an improper benefit—incumbents, candidates who win, and candidates who lose….The statute also expressly states that it is no defense to a prosecution if a person ‘was not qualified to act’.”
The case came before the state’s highest court after an appellate court reversed the ruling of Superior Court Judge Mitzi Galis-Menendez who had dismissed Jason O’Donnell’s indictment.
Jason O’Donnell’s lawyers maintained that the state’s bribery statute applied only to elected officials or party leaders, not candidates. He had been out of the legislature for almost three years when he mounted an unsuccessful bid for mayor.
Outcome of Race Does Not Matter
The court found “the plain words of the bribery statute, however, do not support” O’Donnell’s argument that because he lost the election, the law should not be applied.
“So even if a candidate is unable to follow through on a corrupt promise, the language of the bribery statute makes it a crime to accept cash payments for a promise of future performance. Beyond the terms of the statute, commentary from the Model Penal Code, on which the law is modeled, supports that interpretation,” Rabner wrote.
The justices agreed with the oral argument that the state made on the hypothetical if both candidates in the race agreed to the same deal.
“Suppose someone…makes bribe payments to two opposing candidates, neither of whom is an incumbent. Under defendant’s approach, only the person who wins is culpable, even though both candidates engaged in the exact same conduct with the same corrupt intent,” Rabner wrote.
After the ruling, Attorney General Matt Platkin released a statement that stated “we welcome the Supreme Court’s decision, which correctly recognizes what we have always said: candidates may not take bribes in exchange for promising to give someone a job. Government corruption is the single biggest threat to our democracy, and my office is committed to rooting it out wherever we find it.”
After the State Supreme Court ruling, the O’Donnell case has been remanded back to the Superior Court.
The state’s case relied on the cooperation of Matt O’Donnell, who headed a Morristown law firm representing dozens of public entities, and faces prison for overbilling clients and using straw donors to obtain legal work. Jason and Matt O’Donnell are not related.
New Jersey’s bribery statute has been in flux since 2012 when U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares dismissed federal bribery charges against another former assemblyman, Louis Manzo, because he was not holding public office. Manzo was accused of accepting $27,500 in bribes in exchange for speeding real estate approvals while running for Jersey City’s mayorship.
Linares ruled that Manzo could not be charged under the law because he lost his election and did not hold office at the time of the alleged bribe.
Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed legislation that would have applied bribery laws to candidates, instead seeking to close potential loopholes clearly stating that the status of the individual accepting a bribe could not be a defense. The Assembly approved Murphy’s changes, but they still await a vote in the State Senate.