By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan received $20,000 in political contributions from corporations he said were "related to or affiliated with" former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, at a time when the county was considering leasing a school to a Jewish organization Abramoff supported.
Duncan said in a statement last night that he was unaware of the contributions he received seven years ago and was returning the money.
Duncan, who is seeking the Maryland Democratic nomination for governor, issued the statement three hours after answering questions about the contributions from The Washington Post. Most of the contributions reached his campaign account in July 1999, four weeks before Duncan authorized the lease and potential sale of a shuttered county public school to the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, a private religious school that Abramoff served as a board member in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Yeshiva board President Jeffrey Lee Cohen said yesterday that Abramoff was not involved in negotiations with the county over the leasing of the school and never discussed contributing to Duncan. Cohen, three business partners of Cohen's and two of their businesses donated an additional $15,000 to Duncan in the same week that the Abramoff-related contributions reached the campaign account.
Duncan said there had "absolutely not" been any relation between the lease of the school and campaign contributions. "I feel very strongly that closed, abandoned schools are bad for neighborhoods. I wanted to get the schools reused."
Cohen said, "We're businessmen in the county, and we feel Duncan has been an excellent county executive for Montgomery, and we support him." He and his partners and their businesses and family members have since contributed an additional $50,000 to Duncan's political account, state campaign finance records show.
The Abramoff-related contributions came from five companies in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific, and from a company in the nearby U.S. territory of Guam. All the contributions were for $4,000, the maximum allowed under Maryland law to a single candidate in an election cycle. Donations from the five Saipan companies were recorded in campaign records July 31, 1999; the Guam contribution was listed Dec. 16, 1999.
In the interview yesterday, Duncan said he had no recollection of receiving contributions from Saipan or Guam, which came in the first year of his second term as county executive.
"Last year, I reviewed my campaign account to see if I had received any contributions from Mr. Abramoff and had none; other types of contributions made many years ago, however, were not as readily apparent," his statement said.
Abramoff, a once-powerful Washington lobbyist, is at the center of a broad investigation into allegations of congressional corruption. In the wake of the scandal, some officials on the state and local levels have voluntarily returned money they received from Abramoff, even if it had no connection to the federal investigations. He is serving five to 10 months in federal prison for his role in the fraudulent purchase of a fleet of casino cruise boats.
Evelyn Sablan, the owner of Toys 4 U, a defunct toy store in Saipan, said in a telephone interview that she was reimbursed for her contribution to Duncan by an executive of Tan Holdings Corp. Records show that in 2000, Abramoff billed Tan Holdings chief executive Willie Tan for $223,679 in lobbying expenses. And Tan's companies contributed $650,000 to the U.S. Family Network, a conservative nonprofit organization largely funded by Abramoff clients. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Abramoff lobbied extensively for the Mariana government and other organizations in the Western Pacific.
"I didn't give out any money from my own pocket, not even one penny," Sablan said. She said the executive who asked her to send money to Duncan and who later reimbursed her is Jack Torres, who is identified in Tan Holdings Corp. news releases as its personnel director. In a brief telephone interview this week, Torres said he didn't recall Duncan's name. "I don't think I've ever been involved in organizing political contributions," he said.
A Maryland State Board of Elections official, Jared DeMarinis, said this week that a campaign contribution "has to come from the person" making the donation to be legal.
John Pangelinan, owner of Bobbie's Amusement, another business that sent $4,000 to Duncan in July 1999, said he couldn't recall who solicited his contribution. Pangelinan is publisher of the Saipan Tribune, a Tan Holdings subsidiary. "I contributed, but I don't know why I contributed -- I don't even know" Duncan, he said.
The Bobbie's Amusement check bounced, a Duncan campaign spokeswoman said last night, declining to be named because the matter predates Duncan's gubernatorial campaign.
The Saipan contributions occurred a month before Duncan signed a lease -- over community and school system opposition -- that gave the Yeshiva of Greater Washington the option to buy Belt Junior High, an unused and largely dilapidated building in Wheaton. Then-Superintendent Paul L. Vance said before the lease was approved that the school system wanted to modernize and reopen the facility and keep it public. The County Council backed Duncan and authorized the transaction.
A group of residents sued the county to block the transaction, arguing that "the result will be an unlawful permanent transfer of public property to a private interest at a grossly inadequate price." The assessed value of the property in 1998 was $9.7 million; the sale price under the agreement was $1.75 million.
In 2001, Superintendent Jerry L. Weast reclaimed the school. School and county officials then found another unused public school, in Silver Spring, for Yeshiva. Duncan had a bill introduced in the council to exempt the transaction from a review mechanism instituted after the Belt transaction.
Yeshiva lost the option to purchase, but it obtained a lease that can stretch as long as 90 years for a rent of $40,000 a year. The county also gave Yeshiva $9.8 million to cover the cost of improvements it had made to the Belt property.
Dennis Berman, a Yeshiva board member and Duncan contributor, said the transfer of the schools has been a "win-win" for Yeshiva, its neighbors and the county. His donations to Duncan, as well as those by other Yeshiva backers, are unrelated to the school deals, Berman said. "I'm still giving to him for a job that doesn't do me a lick of good," he added, referring to Duncan's aspiration to be elected governor.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.