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TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today announced that an attorney pleaded guilty today to tampering with public records to conceal an illegal straw donor scheme. She was charged in an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA).
Elizabeth Valandingham, 48, of Morristown, N.J., pleaded guilty today to an accusation charging her with third-degree tampering with public records or information before Superior Court Judge Robert Hanna in Morris County. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that she be sentenced to a term of probation conditioned upon her serving 364 days in the county jail. She must forfeit her law license and pay a $75,000 public corruption profiteering penalty. She also will be debarred from any public contracts for a period of 10 years. Sentencing is scheduled for June 25.
Deputy Attorneys General John A. Nicodemo, Eric Cohen, and Trevor Taniguchi prosecuted Valandingham and represented the OPIA Corruption Bureau at the sentencing hearing.
In pleading guilty, Valandingham admitted that she submitted fraudulent proposals for government contracts for the law firm where she worked in which she failed to disclose political contributions that were illegally made using straw donors. She further admitted that she submitted false reports to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) on behalf of the law firm in which she failed to report such illegal contributions. Valandingham was initially charged by complaint-summons on June 17, 2020.
“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.”
Valandingham was charged in connection with conduct that occurred between 2012 and 2017 at the law firm where she worked. One of her duties at the law firm was to prepare and submit annual proposals to various municipalities in order for the firm to garner public contracts for legal services.
The investigation by OPIA revealed that between 2013 and 2016, Valandingham submitted proposals to the Township of Bloomfield to provide legal serves for the years 2014 through 2017. Bloomfield required the firm, as a material part of each submission, to disclose any reportable political contributions the firm made in the previous year to an enumerated list of candidates and party committees. For each year, Valandingham indicated the firm made no political contributions, and Bloomfield awarded the firm its contracts for legal services, valued in the aggregate at approximately $120,000. The firm, in fact, made political contributions in each of the years in question through straw donors.
The investigation revealed that Valandingham, along with an unnamed co-conspirator, recruited friends and family members to act as straw donors—people who made political contributions and would subsequently be reimbursed in cash by the firm for those contributions. In total, during the time that Valandingham indicated that the firm made no contributions, the firm made tens of thousands of dollars in straw contributions.
The investigation further revealed that in 2016, Valandingham submitted a proposal for legal services to the Borough of Mount Arlington for the year 2017. Mount Arlington required that Valandingham certify that the firm made no reportable political contributions in the year preceding the award of the contract. She certified that no reportable contributions were made in 2016, and the borough awarded the firm a lucrative contract, earning the firm in excess of $470,000. In fact, Valandingham made contributions through her straw donors to Mount Arlington officials in the amount of $7,500 in 2016.
The investigation was conducted by the OPIA Corruption Bureau, under the leadership of OPIA Director Thomas Eicher. Deputy Attorneys General Nicodemo, Cohen and Taniguchi, and former Deputy Attorney General Anthony Robinson prosecuted the case under the supervision of Corruption Bureau Chief Peter Lee and OPIA Deputy Director Anthony Picione.
Attorney General Grewal created the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability in September 2018 to combat corruption and strengthen public confidence in government institutions. In December 2019, 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.
OPIA has a toll-free Tipline 1-844-OPIA-TIPS for the public to report corruption. The AG’s Office has an Anti-Corruption Reward Program that offers a reward of up to $25,000 for tips leading to a conviction for a crime involving public corruption. Information is posted at: http://www.njoag.gov/about/divisions-and-offices/office-of-public-integrity-accountability-contact/opia-report-corruption-form/.
Defense Attorney: Anthony J. Iacullo, Esq., Iacullo Martino, LLC, Nutley, N.J.