Former New Jersey state legislator Daniel Van Pelt has been sentenced to 41 months in federal prison for accepting $10,000 from a developer in a bribery sting that was caught on tape.
Van Pelt, an assemblyman from Ocean County, was convicted of taking the money in return for promising a local developer that he would help him acquire permits for a large coastal development. The developer was actually an FBI informant, and the sting was captured on undercover video.
An ABC News report on the bribery case, featuring the undercover video and an exclusive interview with Van Pelt, was part of a week-long investigative series called "State House Scoundrels" produced by student reporters working with the Ross Investigative Unit. Five graduate school journalists selected as Carnegie Fellows examined the ethics and behavior of state legislators, and found conduct that could be best described as unbecoming.
In February 2009, Van Pelt told the informant over dinner at a pricey Atlantic City steakhouse how he could help him acquire the much-coveted environmental permits. When the meal ended, the informant 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."
Earlier this year, a jury viewed the tape and convicted Van Pelt of bribery and extortion. He faced up to 30 years in prison, but Judge Joel Pisano gave him 41 months and two years of supervised release. Van Pelt's star turn 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.
In coastal New Jersey, say environmental activists, the willingness of local politicians like Van Pelt to make deals with developers, whether legally or illegally, is threatening the shoreline and coastal waterways.
"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.
Van Pelt, who also served ten years as mayor of Ocean Township, made his name pushing through development projects in Ocean 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."
Kevin Morris is a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and formerly worked as a translator and journalist in China.