N.J.’s top court says unelected political candidates can be charged with bribery

Ruling paves way for trial of ex-assemblyman accused of taking $10K bribe

By: - August 7, 2023 11:34 am

Jason O'Donnell, a Bayonne mayoral candidate in 2018, argued he could not be charged under the state's bribery statute because he was not a public official at the time prosecutors allege he took a $10,000 bribe. (Courtesy of Hudson County View)

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday that unelected political candidates can be charged under New Jersey’s bribery statute, ending a battle over the law’s scope that began more than a decade ago.

The high court unanimously found any person — including candidates who do not hold office and lose their elections — can be charged under the statute, further finding a provision of the law bars defenses that center around a bribe-taker’s inability to hold up their end of the bargain.

Attorney General Matt Platkin, whose office is prosecuting the case at the center of Monday’s ruling, said in a statement he welcomes the decision.

“Candidates may not take bribes in exchange for promising to give someone a government job,” Platkin said. “Government corruption is the single biggest threat to our democracy, and my office is committed to rooting it out wherever we find it.”

The case stems from the arrest of former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, a Democrat who was charged with bribery in late 2019. Prosecutors allege O’Donnell accepted $10,000 in a Baskin-Robbins bag from a cooperating witness in exchange for the promise of municipal tax work in Bayonne, where O’Donnell was running for mayor in 2018. O’Donnell lost that election.

The ruling allows the criminal case against O’Donnell to move forward. His attorney, Leo Hurley, did not immediately return a request for comment.

O’Donnell served in the Assembly between 2010 and 2016.

Monday’s decision ends 14 years of uncertainty around the state’s bribery law that began when a federal judge ruled Louis Manzo, who was accused of accepting $27,500 in bribes in exchange for speeding real estate approvals while running for Jersey City’s mayorship, could not be charged under the law because he lost his election and did not hold office at the time of the alleged bribe.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who penned Monday’s opinion, called the federal judge “thoughtful” but said the judge reached a different conclusion while predicting how New Jersey’s high court would interpret the law.

A Superior Court judge cited the federal decision when she dismissed the indictment against O’Donnell in 2021, but her ruling was reversed by an appellate panel last April.

In arguments before the Supreme Court, Hurley said the former assemblyman could not perform an official favor because “one who is not an official cannot have official duties.”

New Jersey’s bribery law bars defenses that center around a bribe-taker’s inability to hold their end of the bargain “for any reason.” Hurley argued that provision is overbroad, but the court rejected those arguments.

“Regardless of the reason, the provision makes plain that a person’s inability to act and fulfill a promise is not a defense,” Rabner wrote for the court. “In other words, if bribe recipients cannot deliver on a promise, the no-defense provision does not let them off the hook.”

O’Donnell’s attorneys argued the court should consider the Legislature’s efforts to amend the bribery law when ruling on his case, but the Supreme Court declined, saying they could not issue opinions based on legislation that had not — and might never — become law.

The Legislature approved changes to the bribery statute last March, but Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed the bill, seeking technical changes meant to close loopholes. The Assembly unanimously concurred with the conditional veto, but the Senate never brought the concurrence to a vote.

The high court similarly rejected a due process claim lodged by O’Donnell that argued the law’s prohibition against candidates accepting bribes is too vague to be enforceable.

“Ordinary people can understand that New Jersey’s bribery statute does not allow them to accept a bag of cash in exchange for promising a future appointment to a city post,” Rabner wrote.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.