Former 9th District Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt’s conviction Wednesday is the latest example of corruption in New Jersey’s political system.
In the past 10 years, nearly 140 public officials have either pleaded guilty or have been convicted on corruption charges. So far, 17 people have pleaded guilty in Operation Bid Rig, a federal sting that swept up 44 people, including Van Pelt, last July. Van Pelt was the second public official to be convicted — after Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini was found guilty in February of accepting bribes.
A federal jury in Trenton convicted Van Pelt, 45, on Wednesday of bribery and extortion for taking a $10,000 cash payment from undercover government informant Solomon Dwek.
Blame it on the splintered nature of our governments — 566 local municipal governments and 616 school boards, each one a chance for a corrupt builder to bribe an official for a favor, said Lee Seglem, assistant director of the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, the state’s watchdog agency.
“It’s the Balkanization of our system of government, that just multiplies the chances of something like this happening,” Seglem said.
Or blame it on less oversight and public apathy, as does Anne Maiese, of New Jersey’s League of Women Voters.
“When corruption is frequently revealed, the public gets the idea that it’s ‘just the way things are,’ and nothing can be done about it,” said Maiese, president of the statewide organization.
Dwek was the prosecution’s star witness. He had pleaded guilty last year to bank fraud. He testified about his own criminal past and his work as a government informant, telling the jury he had never had a problem finding a New Jersey politician willing to take a bribe.
Defense attorneys for Van Pelt attacked Dwek on the stand, saying he tried to entrap Van Pelt. Van Pelt maintained he was starting a legitimate consulting business when Dwek approached him.
Dwek’s polarizing personality — Van Pelt’s defense called him “an unspeakable disgrace” — reminded some longtime political watchers of an early 1980s federal corruption probe, the so-called ABSCAM sting. The FBI launched that investigation in 1978, and agents posed as Arab sheiks and offered bribes to members of Congress. Two members of New Jersey’s delegation, Rep. Frank Thompson, of Trenton, and U.S. Sen. Harrison Williams, were among the six federal lawmakers caught in that probe.
Seventeen people arrested in the more recent sting have pleaded guilty. Beldini was found guilty in February of accepting bribes but acquitted on the more serious charges of extortion conspiracy and attempted extortion.
“There are many factors that have contributed to a ‘culture’ or perception of political corruption in New Jersey, including dual office holding, less media oversight and, unfortunately, public acceptance and apathy,” Maiese said in an e-mailed response.
But unfortunately, less oversight seems to be the growing reality.
Seglem said that his agency’s $4.5 million budget is facing a $3.5 million cut under Gov. Chris Christie.
“Some say New Jersey has too many watchdog agencies,” Seglem said. “But there’s anywhere from $80 billion to $100 billion in public money being spent by state, local and county governments. Who the hell is going to watch all of that?”
A history of corruption in the Garden State
- 2010: A federal jury convicts Daniel Van Pelt of bribery and extortion for taking a $10,000 cash payment from developer Solomon Dwek to help Dwek get environmental approvals for a project in Ocean Township's town center. Van Pelt faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced Aug. 24.
- 2008: Former state Sen. Wayne Bryant is convicted of bribery and pension fraud over charges he boosted funding for the scandal-plagued University of Medicine and Dentistry of New jersey by $10.5 million while working a "low-show" job. Bryant's scam was uncovered during an investigation into UMDNJ double-billing for services covered by Medicare.
- 2008: Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and his former mistress were convicted on corruption charges centered on her cut-rate purchase of city land. James was convicted on all five charges he faced, including fraud and conspiracy.
- 2003: Former Essex County Executive James Treffinger pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and mail fraud in 2003. Treffinger was arrested after a federal raid in effect killed his 2002 U.S. Senate bid.
- 1990: Ex-North Wildwood mayor and Cape May County freeholder director Anthony Catanoso was convicted of taking $100,000 in bribes from construction contracts awarded by the MUA in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The longtime freeholder director and former North Wildwood mayor was convicted in March 1990 of conspiracy, official misconduct and bribery.
- 1989: Atlantic City Mayor James L. Usry was approached while in the hospital by an informant offering money - part of a larger State Police sting known as COMSERV. He eventually pleaded to a campaign-finance violation and entered the Pre-Trial Intervention program. His record was ultimately expunged.
- 1985: Michael J. Matthews admitted to taking a $10,000 bribe in a bid to allow Philadelphia and southern New Jersey organized crime figures access to City Hall. He was sentenced to 15 years, but was released in 5½ with 9½ years probation.
- 1980: The FBI sting ABSCAM catches members of Congress taking bribes. Five members of the House of Representatives and one U.S. senator - Harrison Williams, a Democrat from Bedminster, Somerset County - were convicted.
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