TRENTON — The fate of former Ocean County Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt is now up to a jury that has heard from both the former lawmaker and the FBI informant who handed him $10,000 in cash to help with a building project.
Jurors will return here this morning to resume deliberating in the bribery and extortion trial of Van Pelt, 45, who was one of 44 people swept up in a federal corruption sting. If convicted, Van Pelt faces as long as 30 years in prison and a $500,000 fine, authorities said.
In closing arguments Monday, U.S. Attorney Dustin Chao ridiculed Van Pelt’s claim that he took the money from undercover informant Solomon Dwek because he was setting up a private consulting business.
“The defendant said on the stand the minute he (Dwek) retained me, I considered myself a consultant. But the minute the defendant gets his retainer, he doesn’t tell anyone,” Chao said. “What the defendant didn’t do in this case speaks volumes.”
Prosecutors said the pair met frequently at the Ocean Breeze Diner in Ocean Township on Route 9 and also met once at Morton’s Steakhouse inside Caesar’s Atlantic City, where Dwek handed Van Pelt $10,000 in a white envelope.
“Our government is not supposed to take place in a car, in a roadside diner or in a restaurant at an Atlantic City casino,’’ Chao said.
At one point in a videotaped recording of Dwek and Van Pelt, Chao told the jury that Van Pelt jokingly said to Dwek, “You should hire me as a consultant.”
“He (Van Pelt) smiles and looks away,” Chao said. “It’s like a joke. It’s not nervousness. That’s having the knowledge and intent that something criminal is taking place.”
“These are career choices, not something you laugh about at a roadside diner with a crooked developer,” Chao said of Van Pelt’s decision to transition to the private sector and become Dwek’s private consultant.
Meanwhile, Van Pelt’s defense attacked the credibility of Dwek, who spent three days testifying about meetings with Van Pelt over the Ocean Township Waretown Town project.
“He’s (Dwek) an unspeakable disgrace to himself, his family, friends and faith,” defense attorney Robert Fuggi told the jury in a passionate closing argument.
In his closing argument, Fuggi outlined a series of felonious and fraudulent deals Dwek took part in, all of which culminated in his October 2009 guilty plea to bank fraud.
Dwek is cooperating in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.
Fuggi told the jury Dwek walked into the courtroom two weeks ago “as smug as can be” and told the jurors that Dwek seemed proud when he listed his past crimes.
U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig objected when Fuggi told the jury in his closing statement that Van Pelt “has lost everything” because of Dwek.
U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano sustained her objection and told the jurors to ignore the remark.
Fuggi said his client was no criminal.
“If Dan took a bribe, why would he put the money in a joint checking account and then transfer the money, knowing there would be obvious paper trail? He had nothing to hide. People who accept bribes put the money in slippers,” Fuggi said to the jury.
“He (Van Pelt) may be a little naïve and exercised poor judgment, but there is no criminal intent,” he said.
“The government can’t answer beyond a reasonable doubt, why would Dan leave his position? Why would he not stay on to influence this process at its origin, at the local level, and see it through to completion?’’ Fuggi asked the jury.
Fuggi told jurors that if Van Pelt was taking a bribe, he would not have called Legislative Services attorney Marci Hochman and asked her for a legal opinion about whether he could serve as an assemblyman and a consultant.
But Chao attacked the defense’s claims, saying Van Pelt’s claim to be a private consultant was a “cover for a corrupt payment he took as a sitting assemblyman.”
Chao also challenged Van Pelt’s testimony that he was telling “everyone” he was making the transition to the private sector by becoming a private consultant.
Hochman, a defense witness, testified that while she did talk to Van Pelt about the consulting business, he didn’t tell her he’d accepted a cash payment from Dwek.
Van Pelt was a state assemblyman and an Ocean Township committeeman when he took the cash from Dwek on Feb. 21, 2009.
He resigned as a committeeman a week later and met several times with Dwek over the project.
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