Appeals court reinstates bribery indictment of ex-assemblyman

N.J’s bribery statute applies to political candidates too, court rules

By: - April 4, 2022 11:13 am

Jason O’Donnell, seen here in 2013 when he was a state assemblyman, can be charged with taking a bribe in 2018, an appellate panel ruled Monday. (Courtesy of New Jersey Assembly Democrats)

A New Jersey appellate court on Monday reinstated the dismissed indictment of former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who state investigators say took a $10,000 cash bribe from an attorney during his unsuccessful 2018 bid for Bayonne mayor.

Superior Court Judge Clarkson Fisher, writing for a three-judge panel, rejected O’Donnell’s argument that he can’t be charged with bribery because he was merely a political candidate — and not a public official — at the time of the alleged bribe. His attorney Leo Hurley had argued New Jersey’s current law applies only to elected officials already in office.

In a fiery, 21-page ruling, Fisher blasted that argument as a “mangled view” and “nonsensical conclusion.”

“To accept defendant’s argument — without some clear legislative expression to support it — would be to declare open season on the bribing of candidates for public office,” Fisher wrote. “Defendant’s interpretation that candidates are not made criminally liable for accepting bribes in the performance of some future official act would mean, if correct, that a candidate could be bribed before, during, and after being elected, right up until taking the oath of office.”

O’Donnell was a Democrat running for Bayonne mayor when prosecutors say he accepted $10,000 in a bag from a Morristown attorney who asked O’Donnell to appoint him Bayonne’s tax attorney if he got elected.

“I just wanna be your tax guy,” the attorney said, to which O’Donnell responded, “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 bribery.

Last June, a state Superior Court judge dismissed the bribery charge against O’Donnell, agreeing with Hurley that O’Donnell wasn’t a public official at the time and couldn’t deliver on any promises made during his campaign because he subsequently lost the election. That judge relied on the decision in an earlier case in which a different judge dismissed bribery charges against ex-Assemblyman Lou Manzo.

Manzo was running for mayor of Jersey City when he was accused in 2009 of taking $27,500 in bribes in exchange for promising to expedite real estate approvals.

In Monday’s ruling, Fisher wrote 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 as culpable as the bribe taker, Fisher said. While he conceded current state law references things like “public official,” “public servant,” and “official duties,” Fisher said the law does not give candidates “carte blanche to accept bribes without consequence up until the moment they take office or if they never take office.”

“We reject this myopic view of the statute because there is nothing about this language that would suggest a requirement that the bribe receiver have the ability — at the time of the crime — to perform his end of the deal,” Fisher wrote.

Hurley and the Attorney General’s Office didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

O’Donnell’s and Manzo’s dismissed indictments spurred lawmakers to draft legislation to expand the bribery statute to include political candidates and officials-elect.

The bill languished for a decade before lawmakers passed it last month. It’s now on Gov. Murphy’s desk awaiting his sign-off.

Monday’s ruling says the bill has “no bearing” on the decision and the measure is not an admission that the bribery statute as currently written is “inadequate or ambiguous when applied to candidates for public office.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.