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John Cesaro among public officials charged in major investigation of political corruption

PARSIPPANY — Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that five current and former public officials and political candidates in New Jersey – including Parsippany Attorney John Cesaro – have been charged with taking bribes in a major investigation of political corruption in Hudson and Morris counties conducted by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA).

The five defendants are charged with taking thousands of dollars in bribes from a cooperating witness in the form of campaign contributions. In return, the defendants allegedly promised the cooperating witness, who is a tax attorney, that they would vote or use their official authority or influence to hire or continue to hire his law firm for lucrative government legal work. Envelopes and paper bags filled with cash – and even a coffee cup stuffed with cash – were delivered to the defendants by the cooperating witness at restaurants, parking lots, a political fundraiser, and a campaign headquarters. Other times the cooperating witness offered checks from illegal “straw donors” – individuals reimbursed to write checks to the defendant’s campaign in amounts that complied with the legal limit on individual donations.

The following five defendants were charged separately in criminal complaints with second-degree bribery in official and political matters:

  • John Cesaro – Former Morris County Freeholder
  • Mary Dougherty – Former Morris County Freeholder Candidate
  • Sudhan Thomas – Jersey City School Board President
  • Jason O’Donnell – Former State Assemblyman and Former Bayonne Mayoral Candidate
  • John Windish – Former Mount Arlington Council Member

The defendants who held public office at the time of the alleged conduct – Cesaro, Thomas, and Windish – also are charged with second-degree acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior.

“We allege that these political candidates were all too willing to sell the authority of their public office or the office they sought in exchange for an envelope filled with cash or illegal checks from straw donors,” said Attorney General Grewal. “This is old-school political corruption at its worst— the kind that undermines the political process and erodes public faith in government. We are working through the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability to create a culture of accountability in New Jersey, where public officials know they must act with integrity or else face the consequences.”

John Cesaro, Former Morris County Freeholder John Cesaro, who was a sitting county freeholder at the time of the alleged criminal conduct, solicited contributions from the cooperating witness for his 2021 campaign for Mayor of Parsippany-Troy Hills. Cesaro allegedly accepted bribes from the cooperating witness, in return for which he promised to secure more tax work from Morris County for the cooperating witness and make him tax counsel for Parsippany-Troy Hills if elected.

Cesaro allegedly accepted an envelope containing $10,000 in cash and $2,350 in checks from the cooperating witness, but later returned the cash, asking the cooperating witness to replace it with checks. The two allegedly discussed using “straw donors.” Under New Jersey election law, it is illegal for a person to provide money to another person, known as a “straw donor,” to make a political contribution to a specific candidate. At a later fundraiser, Cesaro accepted two checks for $2,600 each – the individual limit for contributions per election per candidate – which the cooperating witness described as “my straws,” along with another check for $150.

During a conversation about the contributions before they were delivered, the cooperating witness and Cesaro had the following exchange:

CW: Johnny, listen, all I want to do is the tax work. That’s all I’m looking to do.
Cesaro: I become mayor, I got your back.

The alleged criminal conduct occurred between April and May 2018.

“I’m disappointed in today’s news regarding former Parsippany Councilman, Township Prosecutor, Morris County Freeholder, and Parsippany Republican Committee Vice Chair John Cesaro’s indictment on bribery charges. These alleged bribes were solicited in preparation for his 2021 Parsippany Mayoral campaign. Uncovering that this behavior occurred within our township makes this a sad day for his family and for Parsippany residents,” said Parsippany-Troy Hills Mayor Michael Soriano.

Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The second-degree charges against those who held public office at the time of the alleged conduct – Thomas, Cesaro, and Windish – carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without eligibility for parole under New Jersey’s enhanced penalties for official corruption.

The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Attorney General Grewal created the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability in September 2018 to combat corruption and strengthen public confidence in government institutions. Earlier this month, the Attorney General issued a directive codifying OPIA and making it a permanent part of the Attorney General’s Office. That directive established the OPIA Corruption Bureau as the lead office within the Department of Law & Public Safety for the investigation and prosecution of state criminal violations involving corruption and abuse of public trust.

Editor’s Note: An arrest or the signing of a criminal complaint is merely an accusation.  Despite this accusation, the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until he or she has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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Frank L. Cahill
Frank L. Cahill
Publisher of Parsippany Focus since 1989 and Morris Focus since 2019, both covering a wide range of events. Mr. Cahill serves as the Executive Board Member of the Parsippany Area Chamber of Commerce, President of Kiwanis Club of Tri-Town and Chairman of Parsippany-Troy Hills Economic Development Advisory Board.
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