OCEAN TOWNSHIP - Assemblyman Daniel M. Van Pelt's two-story brick Colonial on Elizabeth Avenue, only a half-mile from the Town Hall where he built his political career, sat empty Friday, the pool and tennis court out back unused. Friends said Van Pelt, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, was a private person, and some of his immediate neighbors said they have never met him.
The day after his arrest Thursday on corruption charges, several state public officials, from Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine to his Republican district mates and committee members from neighboring towns, were calling on Van Pelt to step aside, but his attorney said that decision would be made after a thoughtful discussion with his family.
Van Pelt is charged with taking the money this spring from an FBI informant posing as a real estate developer looking for help getting permits for a project he planned to build in town.
On Friday, attorney and high school friend Robert R. Fuggi said he and Michael Gilberti, a Red Bank attorney and 10-year former Assistant U.S. Attorney, would defend Van Pelt. But Fuggi also raised questions with the case and whether the talks with the informant were misconstrued. He said they have looked into some of what is alleged and that "the evidence might not be what it purports to be."
Fuggi reiterated Van Pelt's innocence, saying, "We would hope that people would keep an open mind and let this thing proceed."
The 44-year-old Toms River native moved to Ocean Township shortly after high school and earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the College of New Jersey in 1987.
He went on to get a master's degree in public policy and government from Regent University in 1993, securing a job as an analyst with the Department of Community Affairs the same year.
Two years later, he ran for Township Committee for the first time, calling for more commercial ratables for the small, rural town in order to take the financial burden off its residents.
He would lose that race by 49 votes, but he ran again in 1997 and won a seat on the committee, which he would hold for the next 11 years, serving most of that time as mayor.
During his tenure he pushed for and oversaw dramatic changes to the town, from the capping of the town's landfill, to construction of a full Garden State Parkway interchange, to attracting the state's first Sonic fast-food restaurant and the small town's first supermarket, ShopRite.
Over the years, he also championed the development of the Waretown Town Center, a massive project to centralize nearly all the town's future residential, commercial and public development in a clearly defined area running along Route 9.
"I am proud of the things that we were able to accomplish, like open space preservation, protecting water quality and especially our planning efforts with the town center," Van Pelt said in a statement announcing his committee resignation this past February.
Van Pelt resigned to focus on his Assembly career, which started in 2008 after winning the seat vacated by Sen. Christopher Connors, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, who in turn filled the state Senate seat vacated by his father, Len Connors.
In Trenton, Van Pelt was both in the minority and a freshman, seated in the back row of legislators, underneath an overhang, literally in the shadows of the room.
Coincidentally, his seat is five chairs over from Assemblyman Joseph Vas, D-Middlesex, who is currently under federal indictment.
Van Pelt spoke only a handful of times in the Legislature. None of his nine proposed constitutional amendments cleared the General Assembly, according to legislative records, while only two of the 106 bills he sponsored since January 2008 became law. And even these were of limited, parochial concern. One mandated that junkyard dealers keep better records, while the other required certification that sales in age-restricted developments meet federal muster. A third bill, revising state personal watercraft laws, awaits Gov. Jon S. Corzine's signature.
Until Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, D-Camden, stripped him of his committee seats Thursday, Van Pelt served on the Environment and Solid Waste and the Military and Veterans' Affairs committees, the second seen as a backwater.
Among legislative staffers in his own caucus, they said Friday that Van Pelt was also little known, hard to distinguish from the other lawmakers in suits who joined the body last year.
Van Pelt is also paid $90,000 as the township administrator for Lumberton, in central Burlington County, a position he has held since 2005. While none of the allegations touch on his employment there, that Township Committee has planned to review his employment in a special meeting this afternoon.
"I think they ought to tread carefully," Fuggi said. "If they take action, there may be consequences of legal action."
Although documents don't explain directly how Van Pelt was drawn into the investigation, documents outlining the federal charges show that agents were pursuing political corruption elsewhere in Ocean County.
In Lakewood, in the county's northern end, Housing Inspector Jeffrey Williamson allegedly took thousands of dollars to overlook problems in inspections. At the time, Williamson was running for the state Assembly.
Charles Amon, of Lakewood, who had formerly managed some of the properties of Solomon Dwek, whom published reports identified as the cooperating witness in the current corruption probe, told Dwek that he used to pay the Lakewood inspector up to $100 to go easy on housing inspections, according to the charging document. It also said that he had paid a bribe to illegally use a residential house as a business office.
Dwek allegedly met with Williamson at least twice in April 2007 to discuss setting up an illegal office in a house and having Williamson go easy on inspections of properties Dwek supposedly owned. Williamson allegedly accepted $500 cash from Dwek on April 26, 2007.
"I do what I gotta do," Williamson reportedly said.
He allegedly later passed 27 of Drek's properties in inspections and accepted $1,000 payments on 15 occasions over the next two years, the last occurring on July 10.
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