Thursday, December 2, 2021
The New Jersey Supreme Court accepted an attorney's consent to disbarment.
Calling it “probably the worst day of my life,” Morristown attorney Elizabeth Valandingham pleaded guilty on Tuesday to tampering with public records to secure municipal contracts for the firm of Matt O’Donnell.
“I’m really sorry,” Valandingham, choking back tears, told Superior Court Judge Robert Hanna during the Zoom hearing.
The 48-year-old lawyer — who skated as “Lawless Lizzie” during her roller derby days–could get a year in the Morris County Jail when she is sentenced in June.
Sitting beside her attorney, Anthony Iacullo, she admitted filing documents falsely stating to Bloomfield, Mt. Arlington and the state Election Law Enforcement Commission that her firm, O’Donnell McCord, made no political contributions to officials in the two towns.
The now-shuttered firm reimbursed $45,000 to “straw donors” who made donations, to help procure nearly $600,000 in legal work between 2013 and 2017, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Valandingham and an unnamed co-conspirator recruited their friends and relatives as part of the scheme, the state contends.
“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 Gurbir Grewal in a statement.
“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 Thomas Eicher, director the state Office of Public Integrity and Accountability.
“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.”
Tampering with public records is a third-degree offense that carries a maximum sentence of five years in state prison.
Her plea deal calls for probation — after a year in the county lockup. She also must pay a $75,000 “public corruption profiteering penalty,” will be barred from seeking public contracts for a decade, and must forfeit her law license for life.
There was a hint of potential leniency regarding jail time: Valandingham has agreed to “full and continuing cooperation with the state.”
State Deputy Attorney General John Nicodemo asked the judge to push the sentencing date beyond the customary one-month period. “There are still some unresolved matters,” he said, without elaborating.
Valandingham’s longtime law associate, Matt O’Donnell, is the central figure in a state pay-to-play probe implicating a former Morris County freeholder, a former Mt. Arlington councilman, a former Jersey City school board president and a former state Assemblyman from Bayonne. They have been charged with taking bribes in return for promises of legal work.
Last June, Valandingham was charged with a pair of second-degree crimes— making a false representation for a government contract, and misconduct by a corporate official–that could have sent her to jail for 10 years upon conviction.
Those charges were dismissed in exchange for her plea to the downgraded charge of records tampering.
Valandingham had rejected a previous plea deal calling for three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Her sister, Vanessa Brown, 41, of West Caldwell, has been charged as one of the alleged straw donors. That case has been awaiting presentation to a grand jury, a proceeding delayed by the pandemic.
Wiping back tears, Brown appeared virtually before Judge Hanna moments after her sister’s guilty plea on Tuesday for an update in her case.
In light of the morning’s development, attorneys for both sides indicated they would talk, presumably to discuss a plea.
Three others charged as straw donors have been allowed to enter a probationary program called Pretrial Intervention. Their records will be cleared if they successfully complete the program.
The same source noted that a probation sentence was imposed.
I very much doubt that disbarment (which is forever in New Jersey) would have been imposed if the matter had been contested as to sanction. (Mike Frisch)