Whether former Ocean County Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt is guilty of accepting a bribe is for a jury to decide. And it will, soon.
It’s not the strongest case I’ve seen. But whatever the jury decides, the case still holds some lessons for public officials who don’t want to find themselves fighting criminal charges.
First — and this is just common sense — don’t accept cash in an envelope. It may not be illegal, but it sure looks sleazy on videotape. At the minimum, you’re looking like somebody who wants to avoid paying taxes.
And second — think long and hard about starting a consulting business until after you’re out of office.
As Donna Weaver’s story pointed out today, that’s the crux of Van Pelt’s defense — that he was acting as an environmental consultant to advance Dwek’s proposed development.
Consulting is a legitimate business, of course. But it's a pretty vague term, particularly when your primary qualifications are governmental and you’re holding elected state office at the time. There are all sorts of opportunities for the appearance of conflicts and worse.
Marci Hochman of the Office of Legislative Services, whom Van Pelt contacted for advice during his association with Dwek, said this during testimony at the trial: “I’ve told legislators every time I hear about a consulting contract, the little hairs on the back of my neck go up.”
Exactly Elected officials ought to remember those words long after this trial is over.