Probe links $7M offer, donations
(Note: No mention whatsoever is made that Larry and Clara Halper live on the farm -- only about Larry's twin brother, Mark. The plot thickens, and the Halper's role in this sticky wicket is not all it seems. Only one apparently dishonest Halper is mentioned.)
April 6, 2004
By Mitchel Maddux, staff writer
The Bergen Record
Hackensack, New Jersey
201-678-3925, Ext. 2
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A Piscataway pumpkin grower seeking to preserve his farm received a $7 million offer of funds from Middlesex County government after making large donations to the state Democratic Party and paying at least one bribe, a source with knowledge of the affair has told The Record.
The offer would have placed a so-called "conservation easement" on Mark Halper's 75-acre farm and given Halper more than twice the amount he had been offered under the state Farmland Preservation program in August 2002.
This version of the events involving Halper has been corroborated by other disclosures to The Record.
Halper's attempts to save his farm are at the center of a federal investigation that is seeking to determine whether the administration of Governor McGreevey improperly sought favors for friends, including Middlesex County businessman David D'Amiano, a McGreevey friend who raised more than $100,000 for the governor and was a longtime friend of Halper.
The revelation regarding the $7 million offer to Halper establishes a possible quid-pro-quo in the case for the first time, suggesting what Halper may have received in return for a bribe, during a murky series of meetings among Halper, D'Amiano, and others as yet unidentified publicly.
Sources close to the federal investigation say that, during some of those meetings -- and during one brief meeting with McGreevey himself -- Halper was helping the federal agents by wearing a concealed recording device.
Middlesex County Freeholder Director David B. Crabiel, whose office received a federal subpoena last month, has denied doing anything improper in regard to Halper's farm. He said he cannot discuss the contents of the subpoena because it would jeopardize the ongoing federal probe.
"I am confident that neither I nor anybody at the county level did anything wrong," Crabiel said. The freeholder board oversees all farmland preservation efforts in Middlesex County.
The $7 million county conservation offer would have allowed the Halper family to continue farming their property while giving up their development rights. It would have blocked efforts by the town of Piscataway to gain control of the property through condemnation.
What role, if any, D'Amiano played in the matter is unclear.
Halper has acknowledged that he and D'Amiano are friends; D'Amiano and his attorney have declined to comment.
One source involved in the FBI probe said that D'Amiano had offered to help Halper save the 75-year-old farm, as the family's fear of losing it increased.
"He thought he might be able to get something done," the source said of D'Amiano.
Halper has declined to discuss his work for the FBI.
A statement released by Halper referred cryptically to his role in the investigation: "In a nutshell, it took a donation to the Democratic State party and an FBI supervised payoff to get officials to sit down and hammer out a reasonable offer."
The Halper family has been at war with Piscataway officials since 1998, when the township first announced plans to take the farm.
The Halpers have accused township officials of attempting to seize the property for the benefit of politically connected friends.
Township officials insist they want to 'preserve open space'.
They have said the Halpers are secretly planning to sell out to home builders.
Last year, local officials won a court ruling granting them the right to condemn the farm.
Court documents show that, shortly before Piscataway first moved to use its power of eminent domain to forcibly acquire the Halpers' 75-acre farm, township officials were taking action against a smaller Halper property a short distance away.
In the late spring of 1999, the Piscataway Township Council changed the zoning on a six-acre parcel owned by the Halpers from commercial to residential.
This action came after the Halpers began discussions about selling the smaller parcel to several prospective buyers, said their attorney, Douglas J. Janacek.
The parcel is located at an active commercial intersection, he said.
One interested buyer was Eckerd Drugs, the retail chain, Janacek said.
Mark Halper said that another person who expressed an interest in the property was Jack Morris, a prominent Middlesex County developer. Richard Ochab, a spokesman for Morris' Edgewood Properties, declined to comment on the issue.
After Piscataway rezoned the smaller parcel, the family took the matter to court.
After a three-year legal battle that cost the Halpers tens of thousands of dollars, they prevailed and Piscataway changed the property back to commercial zoning.
By this time, Eckerd Drugs had moved on, and the family struck a deal with Commerce Bancorp, which wanted to build a regional office center and bank branch on the Halper property, Janacek said.
But shortly after Commerce filed an application with the Planning Board in May 2003, the Piscataway Township Council voted to ban banks from the parcel, citing concerns about traffic at the intersection, the attorney said.
Another court battle ensued, and in the summer of 2003, a Superior Court judge ruled that the family had the right to develop their six-acre commercial parcel and that Commerce could build a bank on the site, Janacek said.
The Piscataway Planning Board finally approved the Commerce project -- only days after news of Mark Halper's cooperation with federal authorities became public last month.
Anne Gordon, a spokeswoman for Piscataway, declined to comment on the matter.
Brian C. Wahler, Piscataway's mayor -- and Crabiel's son-in law -- did not return a call for comment Monday.
In legal papers filed in their effort to save their farm, another Halper attorney described Piscataway's efforts to rezone the six-acre property as a tactic that "was clearly motivated" to send a "message of intimidation."