TRENTON - A judge overseeing a former New Jersey lawmaker's corruption trial refused to allow the defendant to testify Thursday that he repaid the government the $10,000 he took from an FBI informant posing as a crooked developer.
Defense lawyers sought to recall former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt to the stand to refute evidence showing him owing nearly $900,000 in mortgages, car loans and credit card debt and unable to repay the informant. Van Pelt told the man in one secretly recorded conversation that he would return the money if he failed to "deliver."
U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano said he would not allow the testimony because the restitution check (plus $112 interest) was written after the Ocean County Republican had been charged and after he'd learned that the man he believed to be developer David Esenbach was actually government witness Solomon Dwek.
Lawyer Michael Gilberti said Van Pelt also returned a GPS mapping system. The informant had given Van Pelt the device after he'd gotten lost on his way to the Atlantic City meeting where cash was exchanged.
The defense rested its case Thursday. Closing arguments are set for Monday.
Van Pelt, 45, is charged with bribery and extortion for accepting an envelope stuffed with $100 bills from Dwek in February 2009. Posing as a phony developer, Dwek approached Van Pelt for help securing state permits for a redevelopment project in the lawmaker's hometown of Waretown.
Van Pelt, who was on the Waretown council and redevelopment board at the time, maintains the cash was a consulting retainer fee. He left both posts a week after taking the money, testifying that he intended to begin a consulting business for developers.
He remained the Lumberton administrator in Burlington County and a member of the New Jersey Assembly until after his arrest last July. He was one of 44 elected and appointed officials rounded up in the state's largest corruption sting. Seventeen have pleaded guilty so far. One was convicted at trial.
The final defense witness, a municipal clerk in Van Pelt's district, testified Thursday that the lawmaker talked of becoming a consultant before accepting the payment from Dwek.
Dwek was the government's star witness. Testifying for three days, he said he was looking for corrupt officials to bribe at the FBI's behest. He said federal officials directed him to meet with specific people and to record certain conversations.
Dwek became a government informant after pleading guilty to an unrelated bank fraud. By cooperating, Dwek greatly reduces his possible prison sentence from 40 years to perhaps less than 9 years.