TRENTON - A former legislator was found guilty Wednesday of accepting a bribe and attempted extortion, the second conviction in the state's largest public-corruption sting, in which 44 people were arrested.
Former Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, who also served as Lumberton's administrator, was accused of accepting $10,000 from an FBI informant who posed as a developer as part of an investigation into money laundering and political corruption in New Jersey that resulted in the July arrests.
Van Pelt, an Ocean County Republican, did not show any emotion as the verdict was returned in U.S. District Court in Trenton. He declined to speak afterward but said earlier Wednesday that he felt ready to accept whatever decision was rendered.
Van Pelt's attorney, Robert Fuggi Jr., said they had initially been encouraged that the jury deliberated for about 14 hours and asked good questions.
"I'm disappointed. A little surprised, maybe," he said. "After two days of deliberations, we thought we had a good shot with this case, but ultimately it was too much to overcome in the eyes of the jury."
Fuggi said they weren't sure yet whether they would file an appeal.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman issued a statement saying: "This conviction should remind public officials that no matter what you call it, a bribe is a bribe."
Prosecutors contended that Van Pelt had promised to use his political position to help the informant, Solomon Dwek, get state permits in Waretown, the lawmaker's hometown.
Van Pelt, who was on the Waretown council and redevelopment board at the time, testified that he intended to begin a consulting business and said the money he received from Dwek was a consulting retainer fee. He left both posts a week after taking the money.
The defense emphasized that Van Pelt, 45, had even consulted a lawyer who advises New Jersey legislators on ethics issues to see if the arrangement was acceptable. On the witness stand, that lawyer, Marci Hochman, testified that her advice would have been different had Van Pelt disclosed that Dwek gave him money.
Dwek, who testified for three days, became a government witness after pleading guilty to bank fraud. Wearing a wire, he ensnared several members of his Syrian Jewish community on money-laundering charges while reaching out to an array of New Jersey officials to offer cash in exchange for development approvals. Dwek stands to reduce his own prison sentence from 40 years to perhaps less than nine for his cooperation.
Van Pelt could face a maximum of up to 20 years on the attempted-extortion charge and up to 10 years on the bribery charge, but he's likely to get significantly less time under federal guidelines when he is sentenced Aug. 24. He remains free on $100,000 bond.
Seventeen people arrested in the sting have pleaded guilty. Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini was found guilty in February of accepting bribes but was acquitted on the more serious charges of extortion conspiracy and attempted extortion.
Separately, a federal judge in Newark on Tuesday dismissed the most serious counts against two brothers who were among the 43 arrested with Van Pelt. The judge ruled that Ronald and Louis Manzo cannot be charged with extortion conspiracy because neither man held public office when the alleged crimes occurred.