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Inside the steakhouse stakeout that fueled one of N.J.’s most famous FBI stings

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,” said the odd dining companion of Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt after the two had gotten together on a Saturday evening in February of 2009.

Amid the rustling of paper, an envelope was exchanged.

“Little something to start,” suggested the man who Van Pelt knew as David Esenbach, a fast-talking guy claiming to be a New York developer with a portfolio of potential projects in New Jersey.

“Well, I’ll hold onto it,” said the Ocean County Republican. “But I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”

This week on our “Eating at the Scene of the Crime” summer tour, which has taken us to restaurants and diners where some of the state’s more notorious tale of crime and corruption played out, we make a stop at Morton’s Steakhouse at Caesars Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. It was here where the cash payment to Van Pelt was captured so graphically on video and later shown to a jury by prosecutors looking to prove that the elected official had been all too willing to sell his political influence for cash.

The pricey restaurant in fact would be just one stop in one of the most far-ranging undercover sting operations to ever play out in New Jersey — ultimately leading to corruption charges against dozens of elected officials, political operatives, candidates for public office.

At the center of it all was a failed real estate investor by the name of Solomon Dwek, who had begun cooperating with authorities after he was caught trying to cash a bogus $25 million check at a bank drive-thru window as part of a multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme. And then tried to do it again.

More than 40 people were charged in the federal sting on charges that ranged from bribery and conspiracy to what would turn out to be a bizarre money laundering scheme involving orthodox rabbis. If that wasn’t strange enough, there was also a guy charged with selling black market kidneys.

More than 40 people were arrested in New Jersey in July 2009, following a nearly two-year federal corruption and money laundering investigation. Star-Ledger archive

As for the dining, the long-running case that became known as “Bid Rig III” turned into a food fest for crooked politicians, who over the course of the nearly two-year investigation sat down with Dwek at diners, greasy spoons, pancake houses and high-priced signature restaurants.

From fancy dining venues like Morton’s, to hole-in-the-wall luncheonettes where the safest thing on the menu was probably an unopened bottle of Coke, Dwek in his role as a government informant, broke bread with targets all over the state, and sometimes even out of state.

Typically using the name of Esenbach to keep under wraps his own highly publicized arrest on bank fraud charges months earlier he paid out thousands of dollars in cash bribes to officials, passed along in white FedEx envelopes. In exchange, he elicited promises to expedite fake development deals all over New Jersey.

He lunched with Hudson County political operatives at the Brownstone Diner and Pancake Factory in Jersey City. Ate with elected officials at the iconic Malibu Diner in Hoboken and the landmark Casa Dante restaurant in downtown Jersey City. There were meetings at the high-end Chart House on the waterfront at Lincoln Harbor in Weehawken and the spectacular Liberty House Restaurant in Liberty State Park.

Interestingly, though, the food was never of much interest to Dwek, who throughout his day-to-day cooperation with the FBI never worked on the Sabbath, always kept kosher, and never ate much of anything as he worked on the sting operation.

While those who were solicited by Dwek were chowing down on lobster tails and filet mignon, he would snack on Hersey chocolate bars that he brought along with him, or perhaps order a fruit platter or salad to pick through. He would mostly eat breakfast at home in the morning and then starve all day as he logged 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 the assemblyman had suggested Dwek hire him as a consultant on projects needing approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Van Pelt was a member of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.

Dwek was blunt on the surveillance recordings, to leave no question about his intentions when a jury might 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?”

“Sure … I got it,” Van Pelt replied, according to the indictment.

A few weeks later, they got together for dinner at Morton’s.

Surveillance photos of Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt at Morton’s Steakhouse in Atlantic City in February 2009. 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, Atlantic City visitors love to spend their winnings, or go further in the red, with big hunks of red meat in dimly lit wood-paneled dining rooms.

Nearly every casino in Atlantic City has at least one steakhouse in it, as easy to find as a losing poker hand.

It’s an old-fashioned notion. There was a time when a steak dinner at a fine steakhouse was the pinnacle of American fine dining. While our state (and country’s) cuisine has come a long way since then — Asian fusion or contemporary Italian, anyone? — there’s no denying that a dinner at a steakhouse feels undeniably classy. Waiters dressed to the nines. Thick white table clothes, pristine table settings and steak knives so large they border on 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 dine, but sometimes you just feel like a big juicy steak with all the sides and fixings.

Morton’s may not be the best steakhouse Atlantic City. Shoot, it may not be the best in Caesars. That honor belongs to Nero’s Italian Steakhouse, whose prime porterhouse came in at No. 1 on NJ.com’s expensive steak rankings. But Morton’s, which got its start in Chicago back in 1978, is one of the biggest names in American steakhouses.

One step into the dining room at their Atlantic City location and you can see why Van Pelt wanted to eat there. It’s a classy joint adorned with crystal chandeliers, a massive wine rack and cushy leather chairs around tables with lamps on top of … pigs? Although 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 leaving 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 that feels more suitable for a romantic date night than an undercover corruption investigation. Not only was it an expensive evening, but Dwek and Van Pelt would not have been exactly alone when they dined together. There were always undercover FBI agents seated at nearby tables also having dinner during such meetings.

For Dwek, though, there were any number of reminders that he couldn’t eat much of anything there. In addition to the fat, contented pigs on the tables, crab cakes and lobster ravioli are appetizer highlights. The sea scallops are wrapped in bacon. There are grilled oysters and prime pork chops. Even the salad has bacon in it.

But this is a steakhouse and aged beef takes center stage. From tenderloin and strip steak to rib eye and porterhouse, the main offerings here are a cholesterol-laden homage to hungry carnivores with very deep pockets. A 36-ounce tomahawk ribeye on our visit was priced at $139 (perfect for sharing, our server informed us). The 7-ounce Wagyu filet was $72.

We don’t know what Dwek and Van Pelt ate that night, although there was mention of 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 massive loaf of hot onion-crusted bread was a nice way to start the meal — it kind of tasted like biting into a giant onion bagel. The bleu cheese-heavy chopped salad was flavorful and crisp.

Hedging our bets in Atlantic City, we also went for the creamed spinach, a more traditional steakhouse side.

But what about the steak? The waitress suggested the filet mignon. The 12-ounce sizable hunk of tender beef ($62) was exactly what was to be expected — picturesque, tender and cooked to a nice medium rare as requested. It was a good filet mignon.

Though that’s not saying much: Filet mignon, a deeply overrated food, 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 fancy and expensive, but we digress.

Filet mignon, a deeply overrated food, 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 fancy and expensive. Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media photo illustration

Here’s hoping Van Pelt at least ordered a porterhouse or a ribeye, something with a little bit of marbling to give the steak some flavor. More importantly though, here’s hoping whatever he got was ordered medium rare. Anything more than that, and the cow died in vain.

Or perhaps he was a contrarian and decided on the honey-balsamic glazed Ora King Salmon with roasted cauliflower ($39), which we also tried. Maybe an odd choice for a steakhouse, but it was nicely cooked and flavorful.

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 delectable, contrasting nicely with the sweet, buttery graham cracker crust.

Seeing green. The Key lime pie at Morton’s Steakhouse. Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media photo illustration

After walking out of Morton’s, Van Pelt later deposited the cash he had been given as he left the restaurant.

Later indicted on corruption charges, he opted to go to trial, insisting the cash was a consultant’s fee. He was convicted of accepting a $10,000 bribe to expedite environmental permits and sentenced to 41 months in prison.

As for us, we walked out of the Morton’s like contented pigs. With a $208 bill.

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