TRENTON — A state ethics attorney subpoenaed by the defense in the federal corruption trial of former Ocean County Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt said Wednesday that the legislator never told her he had accepted a $10,000 cash payment from a developer when he asked for legal advice about starting to work as a consultant.
State Office of Legislative Services attorney Marci Hochman’s testimony Wednesday contradicted earlier statements by Van Pelt, who testified that he told Hochman he had received a retainer from developer Solomon Dwek in February 2009 to help with a project in Ocean Township.
Van Pelt, 45, who is on trial for bribery and extortion, rubbed his face and shook his head as Hochman testified.
Under direct examination from defense attorney Robert Fuggi, Hochman said Van Pelt did come to her to ask under what conditions he could start working as a consultant.
Hochman said she gave the lawmaker advice based on the information he gave her. She told Van Pelt that he could not represent a client before state agencies, but that he could advocate for clients before local and county boards.
But under cross-examination by U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig, Hochman said Van Pelt never told her he was retained by Dwek and had just accepted $10,000 in cash as a retainer.
In fact, Hochman said, Van Pelt told her he had no clients, despite having earlier met and in February 2009 accepted cash from Dwek, who was working as an FBI informant.
Hochman testified that she advised Van Pelt cautiously on his plans to start a consulting business. There have been problems in the past with members of the Legislature operating such businesses, she said.
“I’ve told legislators every time I hear about a consulting contract, the little hairs on the back of my neck go up,” Hochman told Honig.
Hochman said she and Van Pelt last met on March 10, 2009, and she told him once he had a client, he must return to discuss that further with her. She said he never contacted her after that.
Hochman’s testimony came reluctantly and appeared not to help Van Pelt’s claim that he was aboveboard about resigning as an Ocean Township committeeman and starting a private consulting business.
She told the jury that she was here only because she’d been subpoenaed by the defense. At times, Fuggi’s questioning became aggressive, prompting U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano to admonish the defense attorney.
A second potential defense witness, Dennis Tredy, also appeared in court but did not testify when he told Pisano, outside the presence of the jury, that he did not remember Van Pelt telling him he was starting up a consulting business.
Lydia Dodd, president of the Ocean Township Republican Club, told the jury Van Pelt told her he was resigning but he would not desert the town. Dodd told the jury that Van Pelt said he would stay around and act as a consultant for the town and developers.
Van Pelt finished his testimony earlier in the day, telling jurors that during a March 30, 2009, meeting with Dwek, he told the developer he still had the $10,000 cash payment he gave him, tucked away in his top drawer.
“I have your envelope in my top drawer. If I don’t deliver, you’re getting it back,” Van Pelt told Dwek in a meeting that Dwek secretly videotaped.
But by March 30 that money had already been divided and deposited. On Feb. 23, Van Pelt deposited $5,500 in his personal TD Bank account at the Lumberton Branch. On March 1, Van Pelt deposited another $4,400 into his account at the TD Bank in Barnegat Township.
Under questioning from U.S. Attorney Dustin Chao, Van Pelt acknowledged lying to Dwek.
“The money was no longer in my top drawer,” Van Pelt said.
The federal prosecutor also had Van Pelt outline more than $900,000 in personal debt he and his wife had at the time he took the money from Dwek.
But Van Pelt maintained that while the debt was steep, both he and his wife made a comfortable living — earning $247,000 annually — and weren’t in financial trouble.
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