Duncan Campaign Aide Involved in School Deal
Saturday, May 27, 2006
A longtime aide to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan played a key role in the county's leasing of two schools to the Yeshiva of Greater Washington at the same time he was working as a political adviser and fundraiser for Duncan.
Jerry Pasternak, a special assistant to Duncan (D), knew lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- a Yeshiva board member in the late 1990s and early 2000s -- from the Orthodox Jewish community and accepted his offer to help raise money for Duncan in 1998, Duncan's gubernatorial campaign manager, Scott Arceneaux, said yesterday.
Pasternak's dual role raises the question of a potential conflict of interest. He is on leave from his county job while he volunteers on Duncan's gubernatorial campaign.
On Thursday, after inquiries from The Washington Post, Duncan announced that he would return $20,000 in campaign contributions from companies based in Saipan and Guam linked to Abramoff. The contributions, as well as $15,000 in donations from other Yeshiva supporters, reached Duncan's executive campaign in the last week of July 1999, a month before he signed a lease/purchase agreement with Yeshiva for a closed county school.
Some residents who opposed the lease deals reacted angrily to the news of the Abramoff connection and said they were worried that the deal was inappropriately influenced. But at the time of Abramoff's offer to Pasternak, Arceneaux said, "there was no reason to think that Jack Abramoff was anything other than a lobbyist who lived in Montgomery County."
Abramoff was sentenced in March to five years and 10 months in prison for his role in the fraudulent purchase of a fleet of casino cruise boats.
Although the 2006 campaign acknowledged Abramoff's role in helping raise money for Duncan, officials insisted that the county executive had no knowledge of the contributions from Saipan, an island in the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. territory of Guam.
One of those contributors, Evelyn Sablan of Saipan, said she was reimbursed by a businessman for her $4,000 donation. That businessman, Jack Torres, works for a company with links to Abramoff. Torres denied in an interview this week that he had ever been involved with fundraising for politicians.
In 1999, over objections from the neighborhood and the school system, Duncan and the County Council decided to offer Yeshiva a lease with an option to purchase Belt Junior High School in Wheaton. The superintendent reclaimed the school in 2001, so officials offered to lease Montgomery Hills Junior High School in Silver Spring to Yeshiva.
County Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), who in 2003 opposed the lease of Montgomery Hills to Yeshiva, said Pasternak "led the negotiations on behalf of the county."
Yeshiva board member Dennis Berman said this week that Pasternak also "was probably" the person who solicited him for contributions to Duncan's campaign account.
Pasternak declined an interview yesterday, but the Duncan gubernatorial campaign released a response to a reporter's question. "At no time during our discussions about Yeshiva, did I ask Mr. Berman for campaign contributions," Pasternak said. He said that although he was "involved in the project," county attorneys handled the leases.