TRENTON — Former 9th District Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt hung his head as a jury forewoman announced Wednesday that he had been found guilty of bribery and attempted extortion by a public official.
After a two-week trial, Van Pelt’s jury deliberated over three days before reaching a verdict Wednesday morning.
Van Pelt, 45, of Ocean Township, accepted $10,000 cash stuffed in a white envelope from an FBI informant who posed as a developer. The exchange was caught on tape in a hallway of Caesars Atlantic City outside Morton’s The Steakhouse on Feb. 21, 2009. Solomon Dwek, a crooked businessman working with the FBI as an informant, was wired by the FBI with a video camera.
Van Pelt remains free on a $100,000 unsecured bond. Judge Joel A. Pisano set Van Pelt’s sentencing for Aug. 24. U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig requested a modification to Van Pelt’s bail but Pisano said Van Pelt has been “present and reliable” during the trial.
He faces a maximum of 30 years in prison.
“It doesn’t matter what the verdict was. That is irrelevant. I stood up for what is right,” Van Pelt said as he stood outside Pisano’s courtroom after the verdict.
In his testimony, Van Pelt claimed he was acting as a consultant and that he had asked a state ethics attorney about starting up his private business. But state legislative services attorney Marci Hochman testified that Van Pelt did not tell her he had been paid a retainer or that he had any clients.
Robert Fuggi Jr., Van Pelt’s defense attorney, said he was happy his client testified and disappointed in the verdict.
“Unfortunately, the verdict went down the way it did. They (the jury) deliberated long and hard, and they were definitely bright. The jury has spoken after a contentious trial. I’m very disappointed. I thought it was going in a different direction,” Fuggi said.
“These cases are complex and difficult to try. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office has never lost a case like this,” he said.
Prosecutors said Van Pelt promised to use his position to help Dwek gain development approvals from the state Department of Environmental Protection. During the trial, U.S. Attorneys Rachael A. Honig and Dustin Chao laid out the timeline of the five times Van Pelt met with Dwek. Dwek was posing as a real estate developer, but in actuality was a crooked businessman who had already pleaded guilty to misconduct by a corporate official and bank fraud. Dwek pleaded guilty in 2009 after passing two checks totaling $50 million to PNC Bank. Dwek’s plea deal with the federal government leaves him facing nine to 11 years in federal prison.
“This conviction should remind public officials that no matter what you call it, a bribe is a bribe,” said U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman in a news release.
After a brief conversation with his attorneys, Van Pelt walked out of the federal courthouse with his head up and hand in his pocket, surrounded by his attorneys. He shook hands with members of the media and said goodbye as he left.
Wednesday’s verdict was the second conviction in the state’s largest public corruption sting. Seventeen others have pleaded guilty to charges from Operation Bid Rig, which swept up 44 people on July 23, 2009.
Van Pelt testified that he considered Dwek a client in his hatchling consulting business.
During deliberations Tuesday, jurors asked to review videotapes and the testimony of Hochman, the state ethics attorney. Van Pelt testified that he told Hochman he had been retained and that she told him it was permissible for him to work as a private consultant in his legislative district, as long as he did not represent clients before any state agencies or introduce legislation that would benefit his client. But Hochman denied on the stand that Van Pelt told her he had received a retainer and said Van Pelt never mentioned that he had a client.
After the verdict, jurors did not talk about their decision. The jury was led outside by security guards to the parking lot where they refused to comment. They walked close together, laughing and chatting. Many said they would talk to each other soon.
Ocean Township Mayor Joseph Lachawiec had mixed emotions regarding the guilty verdict of the man he replaced on the township committee.
“No matter what you say about Dan Van Pelt, he was the key to progress in our town when he was on the committee,” Lachawiec said. “What he did out there was a black mark for us, but he did do some great things for this town.
“We’re moving forward, what happened at the town center is part of our history, but we’re all new people (on the township committee) and we’ve brought stability back to town and we’ve earned the confidence of the people,” said Lachawiec.
The mayor said he had been following the news of Van Pelt’s corruption trial and when the jurors deliberated Monday and Tuesday without reaching a verdict, he thought perhaps they were leaning toward a not-guilty finding, or a lesser charge.
“I thought maybe they had problems with Mr. Dwek and his methodology,” he said. “I do hope the judge shows mercy to (Van Pelt).”
The mayor said he hopes the conviction will allow the town to move forward and forge a new story of development at the town center.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, sees the verdict as a message to other elected officials.
“This guilty verdict sends a clear message that elected officials cannot use their office to try and influence environmental permits,” said Tittel. “We have believed that for far too long politicians have tried to push the DEP around to get permits for their friends. We believe that this could help end ‘pay to pave,’ which is influence peddling to help developers and others. This verdict we think will actually help protect the environment and good planning in New Jersey and should be a clear message to politicians the environment is not for sale.”
U.S. Rep. John Adler said in a statement Wednesday that government has let down local families.
“As families and seniors play by the rules, we find another local official willing to betray the public trust. I am disappointed in our former assemblyman, and any official of either party willing to abuse his or her elected office,” Adler said. “Our state and country must deal with the problems of corruption and overall mishandling of taxpayer dollars in a bipartisan manner.”
Ocean County Republican chairman George Gilmore called the jury verdict a “sad day” for New Jersey.
“It’s a sad day anytime a public official is convicted of violating the public trust,” Gilmore said. “And, unfortunately, sometimes that taints the public’s perception of other public officials.”
But he said he hoped the prosecution would send a message to others.
“I would hope that the more people who get prosecuted successfuly, the more this will deter others.” he said.
Gilmore came face to face with Dwek, who, through Ocean County Democratic chairman Alfonso Santoro, met with Van Pelt in Gilmore’s law offices in Toms River.
Dwek secretly taped the meeting, and Santoro tried to get Gilmore to make more meetings, but Gilmore refused. He’s glad he did and he’s glad the meeting was taped, he said. Prosecutors referred to the meeting in their opening statements, and Gilmore said he had been interviewed and was considered a potential prosecution witness, but was never called.
Van Pelt could face 20 years for the attempted extortion charge and as many as 10 years on the bribery charge. Each count carries a maximum of a $250,000 fine.
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