Questions for Mr. Duncan

Sunday, May 28, 2006

IT'S FINE THAT Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) is returning $20,000 in political contributions that he acknowledges is linked to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced and convicted former lobbyist. Mr. Abramoff, seemingly operating through an opaque shell game of proxies in the Northern Mariana Islands and in Guam, appears to have funneled that amount into Mr. Duncan's political account in 1999. As reported by The Post, the Abramoff-related money arrived just four weeks before a decision by Mr. Duncan involving the fate of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, a religious school on whose board Mr. Abramoff served. It has the look, feel and aroma of the sleazy influence-peddling for which Mr. Abramoff became notorious.

But even if the name Abramoff did not figure in this affair, The Post's account, by staff writer Cameron W. Barr, raises serious questions. They are worth examining, particularly since Mr. Duncan is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in Maryland this year.

In addition to the $20,000 related to Mr. Abramoff -- some of it nominally contributed by individuals who say they've never heard the name Doug Duncan -- Mr. Duncan simultaneously received $15,000 from other sources with an interest in the yeshiva: Jeffrey Lee Cohen, the school's board chairman, three of his business partners and two of their businesses. That means Mr. Duncan got a total of $35,000 just before he approved allowing the school to lease a disused county public school -- a decision opposed by both the county school system and the school's neighbors.

It may not be illegal or even very uncommon for public officials to receive contributions from interested parties to a public policy decision. But it is unseemly and at odds with the image of an able, honest public servant that Mr. Duncan has enjoyed until now. The impression of shady dealings and the possibility that political favors were traded for cash is reinforced by the fact that a key aide to Mr. Duncan, Jerry Pasternak, was dealing with the school issue at the same time he was handling fundraising duties for his boss. As Mr. Duncan himself told The Post, "You should not be asking people for contributions if you're negotiating with them."

Mr. Duncan says he was unaware of the donations and their provenance. If that is true, it means no one on his staff cocked an eyebrow at $20,000 in donations from companies on the island of Saipan, in the Northern Marianas, as well as an island in the American territory of Guam -- as if inhabitants of western Pacific islands commonly showered Montgomery County politicians with cash.

Mr. Duncan is doing the right thing by returning the Abramoff-linked cash. Because he has built a scandal-free record over the years, his admirers will want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But they will be hard-pressed to do so until he gives a full, public explanation of his role, and that of his aides, in this affair.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company