TRENTON - A federal jury was told yesterday that "Sopranos" creator David Chase got help in developing HBO's Emmy-winning mob drama and owes a former municipal judge for that assistance.

But a lawyer for Chase countered that when compensation was discussed, Robert Baer declined payment. At issue is whether Baer performed services in 1995 during conversations with Chase and a three-day tour in North Jersey, and if so, what those services are worth.

Baer lawyer Harley D. Breite told the jury his client had reasonable expectations for payment, but "David Chase never compensated Mr. Baer for his services."

Peter L. Skolnik, a lawyer for Chase, told the panel that Baer told Chase several times he didn't want compensation. When Chase's script was rejected by Fox Broadcasting, Chase didn't seek help from Baer, Skolnik said. "That's when David decided he needed a true Mafia expert," he said. That expert, Dan Castleman, wasn't paid for his services during the writing of the pilot, Skolnik said.

Chase sat at a table filled with his lawyers during the court proceedings. Also at the table was his wife, Denise Chase, who is vice president of his production company.

Baer sued Chase in 2002, claiming he suggested a TV show about organized crime in New Jersey and gave Chase a crash course on the North Jersey mob. He wants acknowledgment for his role and compensation.

U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano dismissed Baer's lawsuit twice, but those rulings were overturned.

The legal dispute centers on Baer's role in developing the show in 1995, years before "The Sopranos" became a cable sensation.

Baer claims Chase's ideas came after Baer arranged meetings with police detectives and other experts and escorted him around mob sites in the Newark-Elizabeth area.

Last month, Pisano ruled that Baer cannot mention certain factual information about crimes, characters or locations derived from meetings he arranged for Chase because they were based on facts in the public domain.

In court filings, Chase called Baer's claims "grossly distorted, petulant and self-aggrandizing." Chase also said virtually all the information provided to him during his visit with Baer exists in the public domain. *