Ethics law addresses ‘Dernoga money’ in Prince George’s

Former Prince George’s County Council member Thomas E. Dernoga has jokingly referred to himself as Robin Hood.

He said the track at High Point High School was resurfaced with $125,000 he got from a couple of developers, and the bookshelves at the Deerfield Elementary School library were restocked with $20,000 he got from another.

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.”

‘A drop in the bucket’

Moments before the Prince George’s council was to vote in 2007 on a site plan for a project that property owner Joe Lasick had a little piece of, Dernoga pulled him and three others involved into a hallway.

Lasick said Dernoga told them that the measure wouldn’t pass that day unless the group gave $200,000 for county schools. Dernoga said during a recent interview that he had asked for $100,000 and that he wasn’t holding the site plan hostage.

“I became unglued and said, ‘You can’t do this to me.’ ” Lasick said. “I was shocked. I never thought he would say this to my face.”

Dernoga said he had asked for the donation from the developers before the plans were even filed.

He moved forward with approval of the site plan but told the builders he would revisit the issue of the donation before the project received the revitalization tax credit it needed. The developers did not make the donation.

“You have these people making millions, and all this density and all the traffic [we’d] absorb on Route 1. You mean to tell me you have nothing to help out our schools?” Dernoga said. “I found it greedy on the part of the property owners.”

Dernoga said that project would have cost the main developers $120 million and that $100,000 would have been a “drop in the bucket,” he said.

Lasick’s deal to sell his College Park property for $4 million fell apart, he said. By the time the project got all of its approvals, the economy crashed.

“Everything was taking so long to do, I couldn’t figure it out,” Lasick said.

Lasick said Dernoga, who unsuccessfully ran for state’s attorney last year, was not trying to promote goodwill but was trying to further his career.

Help for schools

Dernoga regularly presented checks at back-to-school nights and other programs in his Laurel district. Community and school leaders have called the donations “Dernoga money.”

Dernoga said he had no criteria for who got the funds.

He met with PTA and school leaders to find out what they needed, in addition to volunteer fire stations and other groups.

Thomas J. Tucker, principal at Deerfield Run Elementary School, said the arts-heavy school, which serves a number of at-risk students, used its donation to sponsor field trips, including one to the University of Maryland. The students also participated in a mock freshman orientation, and the school brought artists in to talk to students.

“This money afforded us to do this without having to scramble for money, trying to have a fundraiser, not trying to nickel-and-dime it,” Tucker said. “These developers come in, and they don’t want to do right by the schools. They should be building schools. They give a little bit of money to pacify things.”

Builders pay a surcharge to the county for each house they build to help offset the additional strain on schools and emergency services.

Dwight H. Merriam, a lawyer and an expert on land-use issues, said there are better ways to achieve what Dernoga wants: developer agreements or community benefit agreements. Peters’s bill makes an exception by allowing developers to give contributions if the money is brought up during a public hearing and deals with adequate public facilities or community benefit requirements.

Merriam said that developer agreements involve transparency and community involvement. “If you have an informal process, where is the certainty that they will get the process approved?” he asked. “If it’s a binding agreement, then the developer and the community can be assured that they will get what they want.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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