Former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, left, walks with his attorney Robert Fuggi Jr., May 5 as they leave the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Courthouse in Trenton. Associated Press/Mel Evans

Former Ocean County Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt is the one on trial for bribery and extortion, but his defense team has been putting the consulting industry in the spotlight.

Van Pelt, 45, has said he followed the state’s ethical and legal requirements to become a consultant. Van Pelt testified he spoke with an attorney and resigned from the Ocean Township committee in order to work with Solomon Dwek, an FBI informant posing as a developer.

While it is undisputed that Van Pelt accepted cash from Dwek  — $10,000 handed to him in an envelope — Van Pelt testified last week that the money was a consulting fee, not a bribe.

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“I accepted the envelope. Everyone saw it on the tape. That is as caught-off-guard as I'll ever be,” Van Pelt testified.

The prosecution, however, says Van Pelt accepted that money in exchange for a promise to help move Dwek’s application to become the designated developer of the Waretown Town Center “to the top of the pile.” Van Pelt used that language in a tape secretly recorded by Dwek for the FBI and played in court May 7.

“You guys should hire me as a consultant,” he told Dwek in another conversation, prosecutors said.

Van Pelt, who is being tried in federal court in Trenton, was one of 44 people, many of them elected officials, rounded up in a federal corruption sting last July.

The role of lobbyists

Outside the courtroom, environmentalists say Van Pelt’s testimony highlights the problems in the industry.

Matthew Blake, who manages the American Littoral Society’s Delaware Bay program, said the perception of corruption in New Jersey government is widely held.

“We all hear about New Jersey being ‘the Soprano state,’” Blake said. “It doesn’t seem unusual to have a pre-application meeting to find out where the DEP stands on a project. But where it becomes a problem is when there’s an expectation of some special favoritism or a deal.”

Blake says that testimony in the trial is likely perpetuating the stereotype that the corrupt deals are constantly being cut.

But Blake believes the bigger threat to New Jersey’s environment is not the private deal, but rather the very public modification of environmental regulations.

“I’ve seen administrations come and go and, meanwhile, we’re paving over 14,000 to 30,000 acres a year,” Blake said. “Clearly when it comes to influence, the lobbying industry is beating us.”

Lobbyists, however, say they are necessary to help builders navigate the web of state environmental regulations for development — and regulators agree.

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said most people would be unable to complete a permit application without the help of a consultant. As a result, consulting is commonplace during the application process, he said.

An applicant can enlist the assistance of a consultant for the application process in any of the DEP’s seven major branches, including: economic growth and green energy, natural and historic resources, land-use management, water, environmental regulation, site remediation, and compliance and enforcement.

During the process, a consultant will prepare and provide the applicant’s paperwork for the DEP, Hajna said. A consultant could also conduct studies on behalf of the applicant, he said.

An Office of Legislative Services attorney testified for the prosecution last week that Van Pelt asked her legal advice and said he wanted to work as a consultant after he retired as an Ocean Township committeeman.

Marci Hochman testified for the defense that Van Pelt had sought her legal counsel, but she also said Van Pelt never told her he had accepted money in February 2009 from Dwek, who he believed was a developer.

Van Pelt had testified earlier that he told Hochman he had received a retainer from Dwek.

“I’ve told legislators every time I hear about a consulting contract, the little hairs on the back of my neck go up,” Hochman said in court.

Consultant or not?

Prosecutors allege Van Pelt was not acting as a consultant. Instead, they say, he was taking a cash bribe to use his state influence to get approvals for a project.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the N.J. chapter of the Sierra Club, is skeptical of Van Pelt’s defense.

“What did he know about (the Waretown Town Center) that an engineer or wetlands permit expert wouldn’t know?” Tittel asked.

Both Tittel and Blake saw a distinction between consultants with technical experience or those with political connections.

Knowing if a lawmaker is acting as consultant is tricky. Lawmakers are required to file financial disclosure for all income sources, but it may not be clear on an assemblyman’s report which employer is a consulting firm, said Albert Porroni, director of the Office of Legislative Services.

In the buildup to the trial, Van Pelt’s defense attorneys sought expert testimony from a Rutgers law professor about the ethics of working as a lawmaker and a private consultant. But the prosecution objected, and the witnesses never testified.

Van Pelt’s defense rested Thursday after a judge refused to allow the former assemblyman to tell the jury that he repaid the $10,000 after his indictment.

Closing arguments will be held this morning in Trenton.

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