TOMS RIVER - Assemblyman Daniel M. Van Pelt announced his resignation Friday afternoon and withdrew his candidacy for re-election, eight days after he was charged with accepting a $10,000 bribe from an FBI witness.
"While I have an unblemished record of over 20 years in public service, I fully understand the outrage that has accompanied these accusations, and I recognize that the public has a right to its reaction," he said.
Van Pelt, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, made his announcement in the law offices of his attorney, Robert R. Fuggi Jr., on Main Street, in a quickly assembled news conference Friday afternoon.
Shortly before 5 p.m., he walked through a set of double glass doors from the back of the law office, stepped into a meeting room and sat at the end of a long table with Fuggi by his side.
Van Pelt raised his eyebrows to acknowledge the group of reporters waiting for him. He was able to keep his casual and confident demeanor, despite the seriousness of the event.
He read directly from his prepared remarks, leaning over the table with his hands in his lap, looking up periodically.
"My current situation would only serve as a distraction, and I would do a disservice to those who elected me to do a job," he said.
He declined to answer questions, saying it was on the advice of his attorney: "At this point in time, although I would like to respond to the government's allegations, I have been advised that I cannot take any question related to the facts and circumstances surrounding the charges against me and eagerly await my day in court."
When finished, he closed the folder holding his paperwork and quickly walked back into the firm's interior offices.
Fuggi said he considers his client and longtime friend innocent. He said it took the freshman legislator more than a week to resign because he was so shocked by his arrest and the "mayhem" of July 23, when the FBI arrested 44 people after an investigation that spanned years and international borders.
Officials from Gov. Jon S. Corzine down to Van Pelt's own delegation and former fellow committee members called for his resignation shortly after the charges were announced, but Van Pelt resisted the call and stayed out of public view.
The FBI alleges Van Pelt took a bribe from a witness posing as a developer interested in building in Ocean Township earlier this year. Van Pelt told the witness to hire him as a "consultant" and that he could use his influence to pressure regulators into supplying environmental permits, authorities said.
Van Pelt said he hopes to clear his name eventually: "In the months ahead, I will simply tell the truth, and in the end hopefully prove that I was worthy of the public trust that has defined a part of who I am."
Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore said he had one conversation with Van Pelt encouraging him to resign and was happy to hear Friday that he finally did so: "I think in light of the charges against him, Dan Van Pelt needed to devote all his time and energy to defending himself. To continue in office would have been a distraction from the primary goal."
Ocean Township Mayor Robert Kraft also said he thought Van Pelt did the right thing.
"I think it's a good move on Dan's part to resign," he said. "I think he needs to focus on the cloud that's over his head at this time. It's a sad day, but it's something that was inevitable to happen."
Van Pelt said he also submitted his resignation to Corzine and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden, Gloucester.
Under state law, officials who resign their seats must file their notice with the New Jersey Department of State, which then notifies the district's party chairmen. The chairmen then have a week to schedule a replacement meeting to be held over the ensuing 35 days.
Gilmore said he expected a meeting to be held the week of Aug. 10.
Party chairmen have until Sept. 16, according to state law, to pick a replacement candidate for the November ballot.
The chairmen submit the replacement name to the state party chairman, who then files the name with the Secretary of State.
Gilmore said a host of candidates are possible for the job but declined to name them Friday.
Van Pelt's districtmate, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, said news of the resignation was "the best news that we've heard in a week." The resignation also frees up the Republican from having to stump for a candidate under the cloud of last Thursday's arrest.
"In regard to having an election in November that would be free from all the allegations that would be thrown up," Gilmore said, "I think he has made the right decision."
Earlier in the week, the Democrats running against Van Pelt said they gave him the benefit of the doubt of the legal system but looked forward to running against him.
"It's amazing. It took two Democrats to do something the entire Republican Party couldn't do," campaign spokesman Steve Moran said after the resignation Friday. "We asked him to run and he ran away."
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