In a development that could mean trouble for Mayor Steven Fulop, a lawyer at the center of a scheme to route money to candidates and elected officials through “straw donors” in exchange for legal work has pleaded guilty and is now cooperating with prosecutors.
Straw donors are used to evade the $2,600 legal contribution limit for individuals and businesses.
In September, northjersey.com reported that in 2013, Fulop and his campaign team received $35,600 in donations from the straw donors. According to the report, the Fulop administration subsequently hired the lawyer, Elizabeth Valandingham, and her firm O’Donnell McCord, to handle its tax appeals, netting the firm $744 thousand in legal fees. Jersey City Times, confirmed many of the donations through a review of ELEC reports.
Valandingham’s law partner, Matt O’Donnell, pleaded guilty in 2018 in connection with a separate bribery scheme that led to the indictment of former Jersey City Board of Education President and Fulop ally Sudhan Thomas.
Under the plea agreement, the Attorney General will recommend that Valandingham be sentenced to a term of probation conditioned upon her serving 364 days in the county jail. She will also forfeit her law license and pay a $75,000 public corruption profiteering penalty. She will be prohibited from any public contracts for a period of 10 years. She is reportedly assisting prosecutors in the continuing investigation.
“By recruiting straw donors and falsifying contract proposals and ELEC reports, this defendant tried to evade our campaign finance and pay-to-play laws,” said Attorney General Grewal. “We will not tolerate those who engage in criminal conduct to skirt these important laws, which are meant to stop politically connected firms from purchasing public contracts with campaign contributions.”
“Fair elections and open public contracts are vital to our democracy, and that is why we have strong laws to safeguard them,” said OPIA Director Thomas Eicher. “This guilty plea reflects our determination to hold dishonest operators accountable if they break those laws and threaten to undermine those critical bulwarks of good government.”