Former Ocean County Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, swept up in a federal corruption sting that snared 45 people last July, is headed to trial with a novel defense and a pair of combative attorneys who intend to make the government's star witness the focus of the trial.
Jury selection for Van Pelt, the former 9th District assemblyman and former Ocean Township mayor, begins Monday in U.S. District Court in Trenton.
Van Pelt, 45, is charged with one count of extortion by a public official and one count of bribery. He was among 44 people arrested July 23, 2009, in a federal sting that targeted public officials and others in various schemes, from bribery to organ trafficking. Prosecutors allege Van Pelt took $10,000 cash from undercover FBI informant Solomon Dwek.
According to prosecutors, Dwek was posing as a developer, "David Esenbech," in need of help getting environmental approvals for a project in Ocean Township's Waretown Town Center project. Van Pelt was still an Ocean Township committeeman when he allegedly took $10,000 from Dwek on Feb. 21, 2009.
But defense attorney Robert Fuggi said Van Pelt intended to set up a consulting business when he met with Dwek. The assemblyman had even discussed his plans with an attorney for the state's Office of Legislative Services, who gave him legal advice on how he could operate as a consultant.
Van Pelt met with Dwek and took the $10,000 cash in an envelope. He officially resigned from Ocean Township Committee a week later.
"The advice he received from the state was that he could legally do this," Fuggi said.
Van Pelt's attorneys are going to try to focus jury attention on the government's witness.
Fuggi has called Dwek a "master criminal" who skillfully manipulated conversations with Van Pelt from the weather to money and permits and back again.
"What Dwek did was masterful," Fuggi said. "This guy was facing 100 years in jail for what he did, and he hasn't spent a day in jail. And now he's the government's star witness?"
Dwek pleaded guilty in October to one count of money laundering and one count of bank fraud of about $50 million through various schemes. He has yet to be sentenced.
Last month, the defense sought to force federal prosecutors to show its surveillance tapes in their entirety, which prosecutors said would amount to "literally hours of video." U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano denied that motion, but will allow the defense to present ample sections of transcripts, Fuggi said.
U.S. attorneys handling the prosecution will not discuss the case so close to trial, a spokeswoman said Friday.
Professor Daniel Filler, a senior associate at the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law, sees an interesting battle shaping up.
"The defense is going to argue that by telling (the lawyer), it suggests that he didn't have criminal intentions," Filler said. "People doing bad things try and cover them up."
But the prosecution has options, Filler said, including arguing that Van Pelt's discussions with the attorney could have been a "strategic maneuver" to establish a ruse of openness as cover for the bribe.
The second issue involves Dwek, a "tainted witness" with a criminal history of fraud and deception, but one whose testimony and candidness about his past have made him credible to other juries, Filler said.
"A tainted witness can work for the prosecution, but it does give the defense something to attack."
Van Pelt was indicted in December on charges of extortion and accepting corrupt payments. He faces as long as 30 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
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