TRENTON — Former 9th District state Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt told jurors in his federal bribery trial Tuesday that he was open and “transparent” about starting a new career as a consultant when he took a $10,000 payment from an undercover FBI informant posing as a developer.
Van Pelt, 45, appeared confident as he told jurors that he never tried to hide the fact that he received $10,000 from the supposed developer, Solomon Dwek, in exchange for help securing approvals for the Waretown Town Center project in Ocean Township.
“I thought it was an opportunity for me to play a part in something I worked on for so long, to see it to fruition,” Van Pelt said of Dwek’s plans for commercial development in Ocean Township. Van Pelt, a former mayor of Ocean Township, was a township committeeman and state assemblyman when he took the payment on Feb. 21, 2009. He had already submitted his resignation as committeeman, which would become effective eight days later. He resigned as assemblyman after his arrest.
Van Pelt told jurors he even sought the legal advice of a state Office of Legislative Services attorney on the ethics of working as a state assemblyman and a private consultant just two days after accepting what he characterized as a $10,000 retainer for a consultant position.
Van Pelt’s physical appearance in U.S. District Court in Trenton on Tuesday offered a stark contrast to that of July 23, 2009, when he was pulled from his Ocean Township home, shaken and unshaven, wearing black plastic sandals, sweat pants and a purple sweatshirt.
With his thick, dark hair parted to the side, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and yellow-green tie, Van Pelt calmly walked to the witness stand and took his seat. He later referred to the color of his tie as “environmental green.”
Questioned about land-use regulations and environmental land issues by defense attorney Robert Fuggi Jr., Van Pelt said he gravitated toward environmental work, and spoke of the balance between environmental protection and economic development in the township.
What prosecutors have called a bribe, Van Pelt said he saw as “a legitimate business opportunity.” He told jurors that in 2008 he was planning to transfer from the public sector to the private sector.
“The only thing that I thought would be doable was to be self-employed,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt said he assumed Dwek insisted on meeting with him because Dwek was trying to get Van Pelt on his team. Van Pelt told the jury that at “every single step of every meeting, I couldn’t have been more transparent.”
When Dwek pushed him to introduce him to additional elected officials so he could offer them money and gifts, Van Pelt told Dwek it wasn’t necessary to offer plane tickets, Rolex watches or cash payoffs to public officials.
“Dwek was fixated on meeting other committee members and officials. But I don’t drive that bus. Clearly, it was just not appropriate. I told him (Dwek), it’s not about that,” Van Pelt testified.
Van Pelt accepted a white envelope from Dwek, stuffed with $10,000 in $100 bills on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009, after a meeting at Morton’s The Steakhouse at Caesars Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.
“I accepted the envelope. Everyone saw it on the tape. That is as caught-off-guard as I’ll ever be,” Van Pelt said.
He said he and Dwek never discussed “a payment schedule,” and that he didn’t put the money in the bank because he didn’t have the authority.
He shared the news that night with his wife, Stacey Kerr, who was present in the courtroom Tuesday with her father.
“I said to my wife, Stacey, ‘This gentleman just gave me $10,000 in cash.’ I thought $10,000 was a lot of money,” Van Pelt said.
He said he put the money in a shelf inside his walk-in closet and spent the weekend preoccupied by the thought of the cash.
Van Pelt told the jury that the payment “triggered his responsibilities.”
On Monday, Feb. 23, 2009, Van Pelt said he called state legislative services attorney Marci Hochman about the deal made with Dwek.
“I told Marci Hochman over the weekend I was retained by a private developer,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt said Hochman told him that working as a consultant and accepting the retainer was permissible.
Hochman did tell him he could not introduce legislation that would benefit his client and he could not represent his client in front of any state board or agency, he said. Hochman also told Van Pelt he must make sure there were no local ethical conflicts of interest.
“I followed her instructions to the T,” Van Pelt said.
“After 10 years I like to think I gained a reputation of doing things the right way,” he said
The defense is expected to call Hochman to testify today, after Van Pelt faces cross-examination.
Van Pelt’s appearance on the stand came a day after Dwek finished three days of testimony as part of the prosecution’s case.
Dwek testified that in February 2009, posing as a real estate developer, he offered Van Pelt $10,000 in exchange for official action, just as he had done “in real life numerous times” with other politicians. Dwek was supposedly seeking help with state Department of Environmental Protection approvals.
Van Pelt is one of 44 elected and appointed officials rounded up last July in the state’s largest corruption sting. Seventeen have pleaded guilty so far. One was convicted at trial.
Van Pelt is charged with extortion and accepting a bribe. A taped conversation reveals he also accepted a GPS tracking device that Dwek gave him because he got lost and was late coming to the meeting where he accepted the $10,000.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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