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Sometimes a bribe is just a bribe

The once-obscure Jersey Shore legislator Daniel Van Pelt became famous last summer when the feds rounded him up with a busload of other officials and — why not? — rabbis. This month, he was convicted of taking a $10,000 bribe from Solomon Dwek, a corrupt developer turned prolific federal informant.

The verdict followed a three-week trial that featured a fascinating defense. His lawyers argued that Van Pelt thought Dwek's payment was no bribe, but rather the first "retainer" of his new career — consulting.

While the difference between a fee and a bribe might seem obvious, recent history suggests it isn't to New Jersey politicians. Here, then, are a few questions to help confused Garden State officials determine whether they are in fact consultants or criminals:

Do you work in an office or a diner? One prosecutor took note of the places where Van Pelt and the informant met, saying: "Our government is not supposed to take place in a car, in a roadside diner, or in a restaurant at an Atlantic City casino." Similarly, most professional consultants conduct at least some of their business in Class A office space, as opposed to parked cars.

And while consultants might dine at Morton's Steakhouse, few would accept payment there, as Van Pelt did — raising another instructive question:

Are you compensated by direct deposit or stacks of $100 bills? One Van Pelt lawyer asserted that Ocean County politics is conducted in cash "all the time." This is not generally true of consulting.

Dwek paid Van Pelt with a hundred C-notes stuffed in an envelope — and toted to the legislator's home in a doggie bag — which might have raised eyebrows at, say, Deloitte & Touche.

Are your earnings reviewed by a financial planner or an ethics lawyer? Part of Van Pelt's defense was that he was cleared by a legislative ethics official. The official didn't remember it quite the same way. In any case, most consultants don't have the Office of Legislative Services on speed dial.

Do you have several other jobs in the public sector? Van Pelt held three paid government positions when he accepted his "fee" — another sign that he wasn't really a consultant, which tends to be a full-time job that provides a decent living on its own.

Can you keep a straight face when you say you're a consultant? A recording revealed that Van Pelt laughed when he told Dwek, "You should hire me as a consultant." Hiring a consultant isn't all that funny, though, especially to a consultant. So what made Van Pelt chuckle?

Dwek had a theory: "Consulting work," he testified, "was a code word for bribery." Or, as U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman put it this month, "This conviction should remind public officials that no matter what you call it, a bribe is a bribe."