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Van Pelt Corruption Defense: “Everybody Does It”

Lawyers for former Assemblyman Van Pelt (R-Ocean) – accused of bribery in the federal “Operation Bid Rig” sting – claim that everybody does it (See Asbury Park Press story: Van Pelt’s lawyer: Cash payments common in politics – Ex-lawmaker accused on pocketing $10G bribe

You know what: they just might be right.

And the tremendous irony here is that Van Pelt was investigated and indicted by former US Attorney Christie’s Office for accepting a bribe to engage in exactly the same practices that now Governor Christie is advancing via his “Red Tape Review Group”.

Van Pelt was allegedly bribed to expedite DEP CAFRA and wetlands permits to assist developers.

Yet expediting DEP permits to assist developers is exactly the policy found in Governor Christie’s Executive Orders # 1-4′s “common sense regulatory principles” (a slogan for “regulatory relief”), as well as the overwhelming focus of Chrisite’s Transition Team and Red Tape Group Reports.

After reading over 240 pages of the transcripts of the wired conversations this morning, I come to 3 basic conclusions:

1) While I was disgusted by the attitudes, ethics, and practices disclosed by the transcripts – and in no way want to defend Van Pelt – there sure is lots of room for “reasonable doubt” about any crimes. The prosecution provided incomplete transcripts. Prosecutors took several of the taped conversations out of context and omitted lots of discussion that supports Van Pelt’s claim that he was basically acting as an honest consultant to the developer. Van Pelt may be innocent – the transcripts show that the closest he comes to appearing corrupt are in Van Pelt’s assertions that he knows how to “work the channels” at DEP (Transcript @page 155); where he advised “don’t worry about the [DEP] permits” (@page 55); his promise of a “smooth ride” on expedited CAFRA permits (@page 155); and that he has “a pretty good relationship with a lot of people” at DEP (@page 204). But these assertions obviously could be interpreted in many different and non-criminal ways – e.g. merely seeking faster approval as opposed to cutting corners and violating DEP regulations. Plus, even I have some knowledge on how to “work the channels” and also have good relationships” with people at DEP;

2) the legal development system in NJ – commonly referred to as “pay-to-play” –  is totally corrupt; and

3) the reform agenda we proposed last July is more relevant than ever.

I strongly urge those interested in getting a sense of the Prosecutor’s selective use of the taped conversations, as well as the sweeping scope of the systemically corrupt lawful development process in NJ, to read the transcripts: Transcripts of Van Pelt conversations (.pdf)

I will merely highlight aspects of points #2 and 3 above to outline the scope and nature of the corruption involved, and illustrate why the reforms  we called for would be effective.

The tapes reveal a series of systemic abuses of the public interest allowed by NJ land use laws and environmental regulations. Thus a close reading provides a detailed road map to reform. Below are just a handful (top 10) of the many abuses disclosed in the tapes (with link to page numbers of the transcripts)

1. The CAFRA regulations invite abuse. The economic “incentives” and lack of necessary safeguards provided bv 80% impervious cover allowed in designated centers are so huge that they invite corruption. When developers can make that much money in one place, corruption is to be expected. So stronger safeguards obviously are needed. Instead, laws work to protect and invite corrupt practices.  (Transcript @p. 7 and again at page 224  – page 55)

2. The DEP CAFRA and wetlands permit programs were the focal point and major fear of the developer (@page 49 et al). Yet, both permit programs lack a set of effective safeguards to protect against the corrupt schemes of the developers illustrated in the transcripts. Abuses ranged from secret phone calls and meetings with DEP officials, lack of transparency, lack of disclosure, to lack of public access to DEP permit reviews. Again, the nature of the system invites abuse.

3. Van Pelt, the developer, and local officials hid behind lax laws, a passive media, and apathetic residents to conspire – Van Pelt bragged that maintaining a low profile was his MO (@page 98). Again, the system invites corruption.

4. The developer and Van Pelt openly discuss – as normal business and government practice – severe abuses of: local and state redevelopment laws; eminent domain; “sweeteners”, or local bargaining to obtain land use approvals (a new girls softball field, in this case); and gross financial subsidies (PILOTs, revenue bonds to finance a developers’ obligations to provide public infrastructure, et al).

5. The developer repeatedly expresses his frustration by requirements to obtain multiple DEP, DOT and other State approvals. The developer wanted to control things by bribing as few people he could trust as possible. Therefore, consolidation of permit requirements and a single point of contact in State government – as recommended by Governor Christie – would make it far easier for the developers to corrupt the system.

Thus, perversely, Christie’s “Red Tape” “one stop shopping” and environmental policies (e.g. expedite DEP permits, one stop shopping, “permit-by-rule, “general permits”, reduce or eliminate “pesky” public involvement, et al) actually will foster corruption.

6. Loopholes in the wetlands regulations (isolated wetlands – page 108) and the option for wetland mitigation invite abuse.

7. Lack of adequate DEP monitoring and mandatory soil sampling make idea that “clean fill” is free of contaminants a joke (@page 109-110).

8. Local officials and land use planning boards are easily duped by high glossy and tech presentations by developers (@page 112).

9. So called “Smart Growth” policies like pedestrian friendly, bike-ways, walkways et al are cynical selling points for developers to dupe local officials and secure local approvals, not real sustainable development practices. (@page 113)

10. The DEP policy to issue so called groundwater “Classification Exception Areas” (CEA’s) is a very bad policy. By issuing CEA’s at sites with severe soil and groundwater pollution, DEP invites abuse and wastes time and money by sending a false message that a site is clean, ready for development, and eligible for an “unrestricted use” “No Further Action” letter. (@page 116)

When will DEP’s CEA and flawed groundwater cleanup policy be examined? It is creating huge problems – for example, does anyone understand the relationships between CEA’s and off site migration of contaminated groundwater plumes and vapor intrusion to nearby properties? CEA’s allow delay – sometimes even let polluters off the hook for groundwater cleanup. CEA’s dramatically drive up cleanup costs and increase risks to human health and the environment.

Just ask parents in Newark’s Wilson Avenue School – highly contaminated groundwater forced evacuation and closure of that school because of “vapor intrusion” (dangerously high benzene levels in the school building). Seeking to dodge any responsibility, DEP and local officials said it was due to rainfall, that caused a high water table. Yet, the source of the problem is man made (DEP policy), not rainfall. Toxic polluters years ago convinced DEP not to enforce groundwater cleanup requirements in Newark area because there allegedly were no health risks. Polluters argued that the groundwater surrounding Newark is not used for drinking water and thus there is no human exposure and thus no risk. But they forgot about risk due to migration and vapor intrusion into buildings (as well as ecological harms from discharge into rivers/bays).

That’s another big “oops” that no one has called DEP on (yet!) – White suburban kids won protections, so why not Newark?

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