The contributions to various groups — which totaled about $1 million during his eight years in office — were Dernoga’s way of getting developers to help improve the communities where they did business, he said.
But his behavior has been criticized and prompted Maryland legislators to pass an ethics bill that would ban Prince George’s council members from asking anyone who is seeking legislation or approvals to provide anything of monetary value.
“In order to clean up our reputation, we have to be proactive,” said Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), a former County Council member, who sponsored the bill. “Even if in your heart you think you are helping the community, there can’t be a nexus between project approval and delivering a financial benefit to a group.”
The ethics legislation, which was signed into law April 12, also bans county-issued credit cards for council members and prohibits elected officials from soliciting builders to hire someone who is connected to the officials. The measure comes as federal authorities continue a corruption and bribery investigation in the county.
Some representatives for developers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have projects pending in the county or plan to do more business there, said they think it is inappropriate to be asked for money while seeking approval on a project.
The solicitations came in private, and if the developers raised questions, their projects were delayed, they said.
“It seemed like by not playing the game, we were suffering,” said a representative for one developer.
An attorney for other developers said his clients often felt pressured.
Dernoga, who left office in November, said he never held up a project because a developer had declined his requests for a donation.
“If you don’t want to contribute, I’m not going to hold it against your project,” he said. “I’ll treat your project fairly. But don’t come look to me for favors.”
He continued: “Most of the people want a favor. They want more density. They want more parking. They all want something. They seem to think they are entitled. You say you want the county to do you a favor that might be good for the county, but it is also going to make you a lot of money. But are you willing to support local needs?”
He said he never crossed any ethical or legal boundaries and never used the money for himself. But as rumors swirl about Dernoga’s interaction with developers and about whether he is a target of the federal probe, he said he has replayed the discussions in his mind. “I always phrased the question: ‘Would you consider?’ ” he said.
As a result, he said, he keeps coming back to the same conclusion: The only reason there are any complaints is because “developers are not used to contributing to the public good.”