Duncan Defends Stance On Yeshiva Lease Deal

By Cameron W. Barr and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 9, 2006

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said in an interview this week that he advocated leasing a former public school to the Yeshiva of Greater Washington to combat neighborhood blight and because he would not tolerate "the objections of anti-Semitic neighbors."

Duncan offered the comments to dispel the perception that his support for the 1999 transaction, which the school system also opposed, had any connection to $85,000 in campaign contributions he has received from Yeshiva supporters in the past seven years. Of that money, $20,000 was linked to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served on Yeshiva's board, including one term as president, in the late 1990s and early this decade.

The deal's leading opponents say they were motivated by a desire to keep the school in public hands, not by anti-Semitism, and angrily dismissed Duncan's charge this week. Some of the opponents -- as well as a lawyer who represented them, Norman Knopf -- are Jewish.

Duncan's comments came in a meeting Monday with Washington Post reporters and editors. The comments echoed those he made in an interview last week with Washington Jewish Week.

"That is so much garbage," said Thomas Robinson, one of the community opponents, referring to Duncan's charge.

Similar allegations were part of a County Council debate during consideration of the lease in the late 1990s.

After more than a year of negotiation and two council votes in support of the deal, Duncan signed a lease with Yeshiva in August 1999 that included an option to buy the Col. Joseph A. Belt Junior High School in Wheaton.

A month earlier, Duncan had received $35,000 in campaign contributions from Yeshiva supporters, including Abramoff. Duncan, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, announced last month that he would return $20,000 in contributions from Saipan and Guam linked to Abramoff. The lobbyist was sentenced in March to nearly six years in prison in connection with the fraudulent purchase of a fleet of casino cruise boats.

Duncan and Yeshiva's current board president, Jeffrey Lee Cohen, deny any connection between Duncan's support for the lease and campaign contributions. Since 2000, Duncan has received an additional $50,000 in political donations from Cohen and his partners and their businesses and family members.

In the interview, Duncan said that he backed the lease because he wanted to return a derelict public school to "productive use" and that he supported several similar leases of former schools after first being elected county executive in 1994.

The anti-Semitism he perceived among the deal's opponents was "an extra incentive to me" to push the leasing of Belt to Yeshiva, a Jewish educational organization, Duncan added.

Duncan cited a meeting he held with a half-dozen neighborhood opponents during the period when the county was deciding whether to lease the school.

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