TRENTON — Jurors in the federal corruption trial of Daniel Van Pelt watched a secretly recorded video in which the former 9th District assemblyman took $10,000 in cash from undercover FBI informant Solomon Dwek.
At Morton’s Steakhouse at Caesars Atlantic City the night of the $10,000 exchange, Dwek’s chest-level camera captured the dinner and conversation. It was Feb. 21, 2009, and Dwek, working for the federal government but posing as a corrupt developer, can be heard speaking quickly and with his mouth full.
“At the state level, I’ve heard horror stories,” Dwek told Van Pelt.
“I’m more than happy to help you. Don’t worry about the permits,” Van Pelt told Dwek.
Dwek told Van Pelt he needed help with approvals and permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection for his Ocean Township development project.
Van Pelt is charged with one count of bribery and one count of extortion by a public official. His defense claims the payment was a consulting fee and that Van Pelt was setting up a new business, one which he later discussed with a state ethics attorney for guidance.
Dwek was on the stand for the second day of direct testimony Thursday. Compared with his testimony Wednesday, he spoke louder and sat up straight. He repeatedly adjusted the stems of his wire-rim glasses and his tie. Every so often, he would pat the black yarmulke on his head.
All day Thursday, jurors listened and watched a handful of recorded and videotaped conversations between Dwek and Van Pelt. The most anticipated video was the dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse.
Dwek told the jury Van Pelt was late for the dinner meeting. He was coming from another meeting and then got lost en route to Atlantic City.
In the video, Dwek jokes about buying Van Pelt a GPS system for his Mercedes. As Van Pelt and Dwek dressed their baked potatoes at Morton’s Steakhouse, the former state Assemblyman from Ocean County spoke to Dwek about trust.
“Trust is more important than anything,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt asked Dwek on the video, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Not having you with me, it’s suicide. Without you, I don’t do nothing,” Dwek told him.
Van Pelt wasn’t all that social during the dinner engagement and looked around the crowded restaurant. At one point, a couple who just were engaged snapped a photo inside Morton’s Steakhouse at a table nearby.
“We don’t want to get our picture taken,” Van Pelt said.
After dinner that night, Van Pelt put his hand out in a hallway inside Caesar’s and accepted an envelope full of cash from Dwek. He said he gave Van Pelt 100 $100 bills in an envelope. At one point, Van Pelt told Dwek he liked him and that he would do the consulting work for free.
“I’ll hold onto it, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” Van Pelt is heard on the video telling Dwek.
Dwek said Van Pelt did not provide him with an invoice for the payment and did not supply him with any materials about his alleged consulting business.
The men said their goodbyes and went in separate directions down the hallway.
More than a month later, at Van Pelt and Dwek’s next videotaped meeting March 30, 2009, at the Ocean Breeze Diner on Route 9 in Ocean Township, Dwek handed Van Pelt a new GPS system in a shopping bag. Van Pelt accepted the gift in the parking lot and updated Dwek about his recent cash payment.
“I have your envelope in my top drawer. If I don’t deliver, you’re getting it back,” Van Pelt told Dwek, the wind whipping against the camera.
“There’s no turning back, but you do what you need to do,” Dwek said. “I do the right thing. Guys that help me, I help them.”
On May 15, 2009, the two return to the Ocean Breeze Diner for a business meeting and more discussions about how Van Pelt can help Dwek expedite the DEP permit-approval process.
“Is there anything I can do for you, David?” Van Pelt asks, glancing out the diner’s windows.
“On the state level, the DEP. I need assistance with my approvals. What if there are 15 or 20 applications in front of DEP? How do you make sure mine gets to the top?” Dwek asked Van Pelt.
“I’ll make a few phone calls and ask them to move it to the top of the pile. Then I will actually go down and sit down and meet with them,” Van Pelt said.
In the grainy, black and white video, Dwek then launched into his willingness to bribe public officials.
Dwek testified that he was telling Van Pelt in the video that he does not mind paying cash and bribes to help him with his approvals.
“I was very clear in my intentions that if there was some other official to expedite my approvals, I would be willing to pay him cash or give him a Rolex,” Dwek testified.
On cross-examination, Van Pelt’s defense attorney, Michael V. Gilberti, questioned Dwek about his arrest for bank fraud and the deal he made after his arrest with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. Dwek testified that he signed an agreement with the government in January 2007.
Dwek pleaded guilty in fall 2009 to bank fraud for passing two checks to PNC Bank totaling $50 million. After cutting a deal with the federal government, he faces nine to 11 years in federal prison.
Dwek has been transported into the courtroom each day by FBI agents. Sometimes he smiles crookedly but mostly hulks up the courtroom aisle with his head down.
The trial resumes Monday morning. Dwek will take the stand again and Gilberti said he will finish cross-examination.
Robert Fuggi Jr., one of Van Pelt’s attorneys, disputes the government’s claims.
“I think Dwek is a puppet in the videos for the government. Where is the smoking gun?” Fuggi said outside the courtroom.
“Van Pelt’s mindset was on consulting, not bribery. He keeps asking, ‘What can I do now? How can I help?” Fuggi said. “Dwek has criminal intent on his mind 24 hours a day.”
U.S. Attorney Dustin Chao said William Maugham will be the next government witness called to the stand. Maugham works for the state’s Office of Management and Budget. Fuggi said the defense will open its case Tuesday morning.
Van Pelt was one of 44 people arrested July 23, 2009, in Operation Bid Rig, a federal probe looking into political corruption, organ trafficking and money laundering.
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