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.
According to environmental advocates, the impact of coastal development in the past three decades has been disastrous. Advocates say that Barnegat Bay's fishing industries, including a quarter million dollar clamming trade, have almost collapsed. Poisonous jellyfish, which thrive on pollutants found in lawn fertilizer, have invaded Barnegat Bay, making long stretches unswimmable and threatening the region's $3.5 billion tourism industry.
"The amount of money generated by development in Ocean County is so enormous it's controlled the land use agenda for decades," said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.
Montgomery does not claim that all the tradeoffs involve outright bribes. He is also troubled by legal contributions that foster cozy relationships. One example he gives is the Walters Group, an influential South Jersey development company that has donated nearly $160,000 to Republicans in Ocean County since 2003. The group has six major developments under construction or already completed in the county.
"There's corruption like with Van Pelt where he takes an envelope stuffed with cash," Montgomery said. But he says even legal contributions can corrupt the system. "In Ocean County it's endemic."
But developers and politicians reject accusations that their actions have brought irreparable environmental harm and that legal campaign contributions represent corruption. They say the source of pollution in Barnegat Bay is not new development -- with its tightly regulated zoning codes and eco-friendly storm water management -- but old development, which takes up the majority of the shoreline.
"If that's the solution, 'blame development', you're not gonna clean up Barnegat Bay," said Joe Del Duca, general counsel for the Walters Group. "You've got to live somewhere. Populations have to grow."
Del Duca said that the Walters Group has spent millions on eco-friendly buildings, which have only a negligible effect on the nearby environment. Though the company may spar with environmental groups, it has not been charged with any illegal behavior.
Van Pelt, who also served ten years as mayor of Ocean Township, made his name pushing through similar projects in the county.
He fiercely defended his record to ABC News, explaining that the deals made as mayor and assemblymen were the best for the town – a necessary compromise between development and environmental concerns.
"They have to protect the environment and I understood that," Van Pelt said of the Sierra Club's efforts to limit development.
"People are going to develop anyway," he added. "Whether I'm here or someone else is here. We just tried to do it the right way."