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MORRISTOWN – Sudhan Thomas recalls a bit wistfully how he and Matt O’Donnell once had “a strong attorney-client relationship.” That was back in 2016 when Thomas was elected to the Jersey City Board of Education.
“He handled all my ELEC filings,” Thomas said, noting that he won a seat on the board that year.
Now it’s more than three years later and the “strong attorney-client” relationship clearly is no more. Neither is Thomas’ school board seat – he lost reelection last fall – but that would seem to be the least of his woes.
O’Donnell is the presumed “cooperating witness” in a state Attorney General Office sting that culminated last December with corruption charges filed against Thomas and four others. Generally speaking, all are charged with taking bribes – sometimes in cash – from O’Donnell, an attorney who was seeking to continue or to expand his legal work.
Thomas and three Morris County figures facing charges – former county Freeholder John Cesaro, former Mount Arlington Councilman John Windish and Mary Dougherty, a former freeholder candidate and the wife of Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty – were all in state Superior Court Monday for a brief, pre-indictment conference. Former state Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, the fifth person charged, will have his hearing at a later date. He is no relation to the presumed cooperating witness.
This is a very bipartisan case. Three of the defendants – Dougherty. Thomas and O’Donnell – are Democrats; the other two are Republicans.
Hearings of this type are usually quick affairs in that nothing much happens. Lawyers just inform the judge how the case is progressing.
On that score, Anthony Robinson, a deputy attorney general representing the state, told Judge Thomas Critchley, that the lawyers involved in the case are “just starting to get to know each other.”
Such conviviality can eventually lead to a plea deal. Robinson said in court that no offers have been made. He declined to elaborate in a brief chat with reporters afterwards, but it’s still very early in the process.
The charges certainly shook up the Morris County political scene. Dougherty came relatively close to winning a freeholder seat in 2018 – something Democrats have done only once in the county’s recorded history – and Cesaro was considered a freeholder candidate for the seat just won by Tayfun Selen at a GOP convention.
The judge set March 24 for the next hearing in the case.
This is not the only legal challenge for Thomas, He also faces federal charges of embezzling more than $45,000 from the Jersey City Employment and Training Program. He has plead not guilty.
Thomas was the only defendant to appear Monday without a lawyer. But he seemed confident he will have one by the time the next hearing rolls around.
He said afterwards that he will “vigorously defend himself” and contest all the charges against him.
In a brief conversation before the hearing, Cesaro said he’s still “in a state of shock” over the charges, stressing that he’s not the type of person to engage in corruption.