Photo by Jameson42 on Flickr.
The Washington Post revealed Thursday that former Prince George’s Councilmember Thomas Dernoga privately solicited contributions totaling about $1 million from developers for charity during his 8 years in office.
Such funds, which would normally be part of a formal developer or community benefits agreement, were instead extorted behind the scenes in a highly unethical (and perhaps illegal) donate-to-play arrangement designed to benefit Dernoga politically.
Community members, especially in his Laurel political base, were accustomed to seeing him present “Dernoga Money” at various back-to-school nights during his tenure in Upper Marlboro. Dernoga jokingly refers to himself as Robin Hood, according to the Post story. Unfortunately for him, moralistic pronouncements will mean little in the federal probe investigating the county, which many speculate he is caught up in.
“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?” …
“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.
Dernoga’s shenanigans during the development review process have been a frequent problem for College Park, on issues like the Mazza GrandMarc impact fee waiver controversy and Route 1 form-based code debates. His total disregard of process, a surprising approach for a trained lawyer who ran for the county’s top law enforcement post in 2008, stymied many a development project on Route 1 in northern College Park.
Perhaps most notable of these projects are two failed luxury condominiums just north of MD-193 to the east and west of Route 1. Joe Lasick, owner of one of the properties which was slated for a 200 unit mixed-use development, claims Dernoga held up his project for a $200,000 donation to local schools.
After multiple delays incited by Dernoga before the November 2007 donation request, Lasick refused and Dernoga decided to “revisit” the tax incentive on which the project proposal was based. Today, two downtrodden vacant lots on opposing sides of Route 1 in College Park, each a block long, face drivers as they pass through the derelict retail corridor.
College Park residents are paying the price for Dernoga’s actions. The delays he introduced for developers, including for those who didn’t make donations, meant that many parcels of land on Route 1 never got developed during the real estate boom, and we’re stuck with strip malls, parking lots or vacant land instead of useful properties that house residents or shops and contribute to the city’s tax base.
Fortunately, ethics legislation, which was signed into law April 12, bans Prince George’s council members from asking anyone who is seeking development approvals to provide anything of monetary value. Hopefully that legislation will avoid a another Robin Hood in Upper Marlboro. Robbing from the future to fuel political ambitions is ultimately a losing proposition for Prince George’s County.