A New Jersey appeals court on Monday reinstated the dismissed indictment against former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who state investigators say received a bribe in cash of $10,000 from a lawyer during his unsuccessful bid for mayor of Bayonne in 2018.
Superior Court Judge Clarkson Fisher, writing for a three-judge panel, rejected O’Donnell’s argument that he couldn’t be charged with corruption because he was just a political candidate – and not a public official – at the time of the alleged bribe. His lawyer Leo Hurley had argued that New Jersey’s current law only applied to elected officials already in office.
In a fiery 21-page decision, Fisher called that argument a “mutilated point of view” and “absurd conclusion.”
“To accept defendant’s argument – without clear legislative expression to support it – would be to declare the season open to bribery of candidates for public office,” Fisher wrote. “Respondent’s interpretation that candidates are not criminally liable for accepting bribes in the performance of a future official act would mean, if correct, that a candidate could be bribed before , during and after his election, until the taking of the oath.”
O’Donnell was a Democratic candidate for mayor of Bayonne when prosecutors said he accepted $10,000 in a bag from a Morristown attorney who asked O’Donnell to appoint him Bayonne’s tax attorney. he was elected.
“I just want to be your taxman,” the attorney said, to which O’Donnell replied, “It’s done,” prosecutors allege.
The attorney was actually an informant working with the state attorney general’s office, which in December 2019 charged O’Donnell — a state assemblyman from 2010 to 2016 — with corruption.
Last June, a state Superior Court judge dismissed the bribery charge against O’Donnell, agreeing with Hurley that O’Donnell was not a public servant at the time and could not keep any of the promises made during his campaign because he had subsequently lost the election. This judge relied on the ruling in an earlier case in which another judge dismissed corruption charges against former MP Lou Manzo.
Manzo was running for mayor of Jersey City when he was accused in 2009 of accepting $27,500 in bribes in return for promising to speed up real estate approvals.
In Monday’s ruling, Fisher wrote that both judges — the one who dismissed Manzo’s indictment and the one who dismissed O’Donnell’s — were wrong.
Bribery is a “reciprocal crime,” with the bribe giver being as guilty as the bribe taker, Fisher said. While he acknowledged that current state law refers to things like “public officer,” “official” and “official duties,” Fisher said the law doesn’t give applicants “carte blanche to accept bribes without consequences until they take office or if they never take office.
“We reject this myopic view of the law because there is nothing in this language that would suggest a requirement that the recipient of the bribe have the capacity – at the time of the crime – to fulfill their end of the bargain” , wrote Fisher.
Hurley and the attorney general’s office did not immediately return requests for comment.
The indictments dismissed by O’Donnell and Manzo prompted lawmakers to draft legislation to expand the Bribery Act to include political candidates and elected officials.
The bill languished for a decade before lawmakers passed it last month. It is now on Governor Murphy’s desk awaiting his approval.
Monday’s ruling says the bill has “no bearing” on the decision and that the measure is not an admission that the Bribery Act as currently drafted is “inadequate or ambiguous where it is applied to candidates for public office”.
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