The black and white surveillance video outside the restaurant was shaky and grainy.
“Well, I want to, ah, you know, get you on my team,” Councilman Daniel Van Pelt’s odd dinner companion said after the two got together on a Saturday night in February 2009.
An envelope was exchanged among the rustle of paper.
“Little thing to begin with,” suggested the man Van Pelt knew as David Esenbach, a smooth man who claimed to be a New York developer with a portfolio of potential projects in New Jersey.
“Well, I’ll hold it,” said the Ocean County Republican. “But I don’t know what to do with it.”
This week on our “Food at the Crime Scene” summer tour, which has taken us to restaurants and diners where some of the state’s more infamous tales of crime and corruption took place, we’ll make a stop at Morton’s Steakhouse in Caesars. Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. It was here where the cash payment to Van Pelt was so graphically captured on video and later shown to a jury by prosecutors seeking to prove that the elected official was only too happy to sell his political influence for cash.
The expensive restaurant would, in fact, be just one stopover in one of the most far-reaching undercover operations ever to take place in New Jersey — ultimately leading to corruption charges against dozens of elected officials, political agents, candidates for public office.
At the center of it all was a failed real estate investor named Solomon Dwek, who had begun collaborating with authorities after he was caught cashing a counterfeit $25 million check at a bank drive-thru window as part of a million dollar multi-Ponzi scheme. And then tried to do it again.
More than 40 people were charged in the federal case on charges that ranged from bribery and conspiracy to what would turn out to be a bizarre money laundering scheme involving Orthodox rabbis. As if that wasn’t strange enough, there was also a man accused of selling kidneys on the black market.
In July 2009, more than 40 people were arrested in New Jersey after a nearly two-year federal investigation into corruption and money laundering. Star-Ledger Archive
As for the dining, the long-running business that became known as “Bid Rig III” turned into a dinner party for corrupt politicians, who, over the course of the nearly two-year investigation, sat down with Dwek, greasy spoons, pancake houses and expensive signature restaurant.
From upscale eateries like Morton’s, to wall-cut luncheonettes where the safest thing on the menu was probably an unopened bottle of Coke, Dwek iIn his role as a government informant, he broke bread with targets across the state, and sometimes even outside of the state.
Commonly using the name Esenbach to cover up his own highly publicized arrest on charges of bank fraud months earlier, he paid thousands of dollars in cash bribes to officials, passed in white FedEx envelopes. In return, he solicited promises to expedite bogus development deals across New Jersey.
He had lunch with Hudson County political agents at the Brownstone Diner and Pancake Factory in Jersey City. Ate with elected officials at the iconic Malibu Diner in Hoboken and the historic Casa Dante restaurant in downtown Jersey City. Meetings were held at the luxurious Chart House on the Lincoln Harbor waterfront in Weehawken and the spectacular Liberty House Restaurant in Liberty State Park.
Interestingly, though, the food never mattered much to Dwek, who, during his day-to-day working with the FBI, never worked on the Sabbath, always kept kosher, and never ate much while working on the sting operation.
While those asked by Dwek ate lobster tails and filet mignon, he nibbled on Hersey chocolate bars he brought with him, or perhaps ordered a bowl of fruit or salad to pick through. He would usually have breakfast at home in the morning and then starve all day while logging hundreds of miles for the FBI.
‘GREEN IS CASH…’
Before their dinner at Morton’s, Van Pelt and Dwek (as Esenbach) met weeks earlier at the Ocean Breeze Diner in Waretown, where councilor had suggested Dwek hire him as a consultant on projects requiring Department of Conservation approval. Van Pelt was a member of the Environment and Solid Waste Committee meeting.
Dwek was blunt about the surveillance footage, so as to leave no doubt about his intentions when a jury could hear what was being discussed. According to the indictment, he told Van Pelt at the Ocean Breeze that he was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He was a member of the “green” party.
“Green is cash,” Dwek said. “You understand green party?”
“Of course…I get it,” Van Pelt replied, according to the indictment.
A few weeks later, they got together for dinner at Morton’s.
Surveillance photos of Councilman Daniel Van Pelt at Morton’s Steakhouse in Atlantic City in February 2009. The U.S. Attorney’s Office
What is it about gambling with money that makes us want to gamble with our health at steakhouses? For some reason, visitors to Atlantic City like to spend their winnings, or go further in red, with large cuts of red meat in dimly lit wood-paneled dining rooms.
Almost every casino in Atlantic City has at least one steakhouse, as easy to find as a losing poker hand.
It’s an old-fashioned concept. There was a time when a steak dinner at a fine steakhouse was the pinnacle of American fine dining. While our state (and country) cuisine has come a long way since then – Asian fusion or contemporary Italian, anyone? — there’s no denying that dining at a steakhouse feels undeniably classy. Waiters dressed to perfection. Thick white tablecloths, immaculate table settings and steak knives that are so large they are almost intimidating.
The open kitchen and wine selection at Morton’s Steakhouse in Atlantic City. Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media Photo Illustration
It feels like a night on the town. It feels like a special occasion. Sure, there are more creative ways to fine-tune your meal, but sometimes you just want a big juicy steak with all the side dishes and trimmings.
Morton’s may not be Atlantic City’s best steakhouse. Shoot, it may not be the best in Caesars. That honor belongs to Nero’s Italian Steakhouse, whose premier porterhouse came in at number 1 on NJ.com’s expensive steak rankings. But Morton’s, which opened in Chicago in 1978, is one of the biggest names in American steakhouses.
One step into the dining room at their Atlantic City location and you understand why Van Pelt wanted to eat there. It’s a stylish tent decorated with crystal chandeliers, a huge wine rack and plush leather chairs around tables with lamps on top… pigs? While Morton’s is certainly known more for beef than pork, our waitress told us that pigs are always happy and full – which is how they want their customers to leave the restaurant.
Happy and full. A pig lamp at Morton’s. Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media Photo Illustration
Nestled on the ground floor of Caesars, Morton’s is an intimate spot more suited to a romantic date night than an undercover corruption investigation. Not only was it an expensive evening, but Dwek and Van Pelt wouldn’t exactly have been alone if they ate together. There were always undercover FBI agents sitting at nearby tables who also ate at such gatherings.
But for Dwek, there were some reminders that he couldn’t eat much there. In addition to the fat, content pigs on the tables, crab cakes and lobster ravioli are appetizer highlights. The sea shells are wrapped in bacon. There are grilled oysters and prime pork chops. Even the salad has bacon.
But this is a steakhouse and cured beef takes center stage. From tenderloin and strip steak to rib eye and porterhouse, the main offering here is a cholesterol-laden tribute to hungry carnivores with very deep pockets. A 36 ounce tomahawk ribeye during our visit cost $139 (perfect for sharing, our server informed us). The 7-ounce wagyu fillet was $72.
We don’t know what Dwek and Van Pelt ate that night, although it was a loaded baked potato. So we ordered it. But perhaps unsurprisingly, that too was topped with bacon.
Loaded and stuffed it was, but the baked potato at Morton’s was topped with bacon and not quite kosher. Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media Photo Illustration
The huge bread with hot onion crust was a nice way to start the meal – it tasted a bit like biting into a giant onion bagel. The blue cheese-heavy chopped salad was tasty and fresh.
To cap our Atlantic City bets, we also went for the creamy spinach, a more traditional steakhouse side.
But what about the steak? The waitress suggested the filet mignon. The generous 12 ounce piece of tender beef ($62) was exactly what to expect – picturesque, tender and cooked to a nice medium rare as requested. It was a good filet mignon.
Though that’s not saying much: A deeply overrated food, filet mignon is all texture and minimal flavor. It’s the order of someone who doesn’t really know anything about steak, only thinks filet mignon is luxurious and expensive, but we digress.
Filet mignon, a deeply overrated food, is all texture and minimal flavor. It’s the job of someone who doesn’t really know anything about steak, only finds filet mignon luxurious and expensive. Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media Photo Illustration
Let’s just hope Van Pelt ordered at least a porterhouse or a ribeye, something with a little marbling to give the steak some flavor. But more importantly, we hope everything he got was ordered medium-rare. More than that, and the cow died in vain.
Or maybe he was a contrarian and opted for the Honey Balsamic Glazed Ora King Salmon with Roasted Cauliflower ($39), which we also tried. Perhaps an odd choice for a steakhouse, but it was beautifully cooked and tasty.
Van Pelt saw green at the end of the meal, and so did we. We ordered the key lime pie ($12), with a generous portion of whipped cream on top. The dessert was tart, creamy, and delicious, contrasting nicely with Graham’s sweet, buttery cracker crust.
see green. The Key Lime pie at Morton’s Steakhouse. Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media Photo Illustration
After leaving Morton’s, Van Pelt later deposited the money he had been given when he left the restaurant.
Later indicted on corruption charges, he chose to appear in court, insisting the money was a consultant’s fee. He was convicted of taking a $10,000 bribe to expedite environmental permits and sentenced to 41 months in prison.
As for us, we walked out of the Mortons like happy pigs. With a $208 bill.