New Jersey Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt kept a February 2009 dinner conversation at a pricey Atlantic City steakhouse focused on business – explaining how he could help his dinner companion acquire environmental permits for a large coastal developmental. When the meal ended, the developer pulled out a white envelope stuffed with $10,000 in cash.
"I'll hold on to it," Van Pelt said, tucking the envelope into his pocket. "I don't know what I'm going to do with it."
The developer was actually an FBI informant, and the entire scene was captured on undercover video. It was among the most dramatic moments in a New Jersey public corruption investigation, Operation Bid Rig, that nabbed 44 individuals in one of the most sweeping stings in the nation's history. Van Pelt was convicted of bribery and extortion earlier this year and will be sentenced on Nov. 4. He faces up to 30 years in prison.
Van Pelt's star turn in an FBI sting is a rare uncensored glimpse of a politician trading the public good for private cash. Across the nation, in return for campaign donations or outright bribes, state legislators have cut deals that run counter to the interests of their constituents. In Rhode Island, legislators were convicted of fraud for pushing through health-care legislation that benefited a pharmacy chain and a local hospital, but shortchanged patients. In Pennsylvania, the former speaker of the state house and a former legislator have been indicted for allegedly spending millions in public money to buy voter data that was of no value to taxpayers, but very useful in undermining political enemies.The defendants have pleaded not guilty.
In the Ocean County, New Jersey case, the jury found that Daniel Van Pelt was engaged in environmental influence peddling, offering green credentials in exchange for greenbacks. New Jersey environmentalists say the willingness of local politicians like Van Pelt to make deals with developers, whether legally or illegally, is threatening New Jersey's shoreline and coastal waterways, and also imperiling the million-acre Pine Barrens forest, the largest swath of undeveloped land in the crowded state.
"Barnegat Bay may die," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to an estuary in Van Pelt's old district. "And it's really happening because we're loving the bay to death with development."
In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Van Pelt maintained his innocence, saying he took the money as a consulting fee. He says the proposed project never made it to the permit stage, and that he was convicted not for his actions but for promises that, he claims, were ultimately meaningless.
But since New Jersey's coastal environmental permit (CAFRA) process began more than three decades ago, wealthy developers have filled the coffers of local political organizations, whose members helped craft the legislative loopholes that allowed the builders to expedite the permit process and push through projects that critics claim are environmentally unsound.