WashPo Covers Back Room ‘Dernoga Money’

The Washington Post revealed Thursday that former Prince George’s County 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 (and have appeared multiple times on this blog), 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‚Äôs council members from asking anyone who is seeking development approvals to provide anything of monetary value. Hopefully that legislation will avoid another Robin Hood in Upper Marlboro. Robbing from the future to fuel political ambitions is ultimately a losing proposition for Prince George’s County.

16 thoughts on “WashPo Covers Back Room ‘Dernoga Money’”

  1. That story is unfortunate for College Park. It is one case where you can see the actual results of unethical practices. I’m surprised with Dernoga’s background how he could be so shortsighted in not seeing that by holding development hostage for a few thousands dollars, the impact would cost the city potential millions in tax revenue. Or did he realize this all along and put his career ahead of the well-being of the city?

  2. Even more unfortunate is the unfair and inaccurate characterization of a respected public official by someone who a) wanted as much dense, residential development on Route 1 as possible without much care for the traffic and infrastructure damage that would be done, b) takes every chance he gets to poke a stick at Tom Dernoga, and (you’ll love this one) c) does not even live in the State of Maryland. Just another example of how someone who has a blog, more time than sense, and an axe to grind can foist his own venom on the masses and thinks so little of them that he would present as unbalanced a sham of news as MSNBC. Let’s see your retort to this one, Braveheart.

  3. It was brought to his attention frequently. However, his position was that he didn’t care whether any project was built or not. He REALLY meant it. He toyed with developers just to see how they would react. Unfortunately, many of the elected officials in the City and active citizens in the north part of the County admired his skills of manipulation and obstruction. As long as he would block any development project that they personally opposed, it was alright if he would block all projects that other residents opposed, too.

  4. I agree with Joe. Rethink College Park has taken stabs at Mr. Dernoga’s character for many years now. Developers do not care about the neighborhoods they are building in — they just want money. Seems to me that many on the current and past city council also feel the same way. I for one am happy the some of these development projects failed. Route 1 cannot take the additional traffic that would have been put on it. Mr. Catlin has no room to talk either as his own neighborhood is unhappy with the way he represents them. Berwyn should be more thriving than it is — who’s fault is that???

  5. A politician who fights for the interests of his constituents community needs over the financial interests of developers. The horror! This is a non-story being drummed up by developers for revenge, as the article alludes to. Dernoga has been openly talking about this for at least 5 years, there is nothing illegal about it…until now. The so called developer backed “ethics” legislation that passed also eliminates the ability of council-members to permanently stop poor development projects their citizens object to, so we can get more accustomed to developers running over us with no community benefits in return.

    It’s difficult for you to understand the dynamics of the county’s development process when you don’t live here, isn’t it? The citizens of Prince George’s County have had few friends on the council, but Dernoga was certainly one of them. Even though I didn’t live in his district, he was always willing to sit down and talk to me when my civic association needed help on a development issue.

  6. I don’t question that Tom’s actions were well intentioned and I don’t fault him for fighting for his constituents. I suppose if you’re happy with the current state of the Route 1 corridor in College Park and oppose all development projects on principle, then Tom did right by the community. Tom took a suburban NIMBY mentality and applied it to an urban retail corridor, which the community itself (not developers or pesky bloggers) has sought to transform into a major walkable, mixed-use boulevard for 15+ years.

    In my eyes, the corridor is in a terrible state of disrepair. Tom’s manipulation and obstruction during the development review process ultimately went over the line and hindered rather than helped the community. I’m all for pushing developers, but not when it’s taken to such an extreme that it’s about one politician’s ego instead of the community he’s elected to represent.

    There are formal publicly scrutinizable means to raise the kind of money discussed in this article. Those means are called developer or community benefits agreement or ‘proffers.’ Instead, Tom choose to go out in the hallway in the 11th hour of any given project and do, say, and ask for anything he felt like. Then he’d go to back-to-school night with a big check and everyone would pat him on the back.

  7. I agree with David. I’m starting to feel that there’s an anti-developer sentiment going on in North College Park. I think most people are forgetting the end game. Revenue. Revenue increases the ability for many things that the city and county lacks. So what if a developer doesn’t have to shell out $100,000 for some worthy cause. The tax base alone would be more than that over time. Baker understands this which is why he’s willing to shell out money to get development in. The benefits outweigh the costs. We see that now in places like Downtown Silver Spring, Bethesda, Alexandria, etc.
    You have to step back and look at the overall picture and not get bogged down in social causes that hurt your overall goals. There are only two questions one could ask. 1) Are you happy with they way College Park looks and feels now? 2) Would you like to see it improve while creating much needed revenue?

    I know one big argument is traffic. Yes, the traffic on Rt. 1 is horrific. How do you invite development while keeping traffic levels within reason? That’s a tough challenge. But it is a challenge worth taking. I look at those other areas that resemble Rt. 1 and they don’t seem to be having any problems with traffic and development at all. They are doing just fine with better schools. amenities, and higher property values. I also understand that College Park doesn’t have to look like those other areas, but is North College Park content to sit by while other cities enjoy huge tax revenues and improved schools and amenities while College Park continues to look like Detroit, all for a few thousand dollars that will be received over the long run anyway?

    Look around you North College Park. The world is passing you by while you continue to choose to stay stuck in the past. If you don’t like traffic, work with the developers to fix it. You can always demand fewer parking spaces and shuttles that go to the metro stations. Require bike-share stations and incentives for carpooling. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. As for locals, if there is more walkable development, then there wouldn’t be a need to add to the traffic, you could walk to where you needed to go.

    As M-Square, East Campus, and EYA Arts District moves forward you’re going to have more traffic anyway. Meanwhile with traffic and all, those neighborhoods will enjoy the benefits of East Campus, the Arts District, and M-Square while North College Park continues to look like Detroit.

  8. If Dernoga was personally enriching himself (fancy suits, watches, cars, vacation homes, goodies for the kids…..I think his son only goes to UMCP, so obviously he wasnt using his clout for self interests because its only UMCP and not a good school like Duke, UVa, Hopkins, etc) that would be one thing

    but for goodness sake, he was making sure wealthy developers werent running roughshod over the towns they were making lots of money in, and made sure they were helping IMPROVE them. im still struggling with this one. similar to what another poster says above – REALLY PEOPLE? I MEAN REALLY?

    and while i have never been a fan of Carolina (or Boston?) Boy’s little hissy fits and rants against Mote, Dernoga, anyone who dissagrees with him or opposes his points of view or the purple line, or tries to inject a different/opposing point of view on purple line alignments or – gasp – possible benefits of a campus connector – et al, he does raise a good point: WE MISSED THE FREAKIN BOAT IN GETTING RTE 1 CLEANED UP. We are not likely to ever see a real estate development boom like that gain, at least not in the near future (Unless Trump goes for it and wins!!!!)

    thats a shame. we just came out of a golden era, a gilded age of real estate redevelopment and the opportunity of a lifetime to make the rte 1 corridor something special and thanks to NIMYism and just plain small minded petty selfishness we are locked in to a dreary rte 1 for the foreseeable future and that is a bummer. major bummer.

  9. And while on the topic of “Missed Opportunities”………

    Why werent our elected officials asking the developers to contribute to a fund for undergrounding the utilites????! afterall, it would make their properties worth more money.

    * GASP * even the University would have to fund this fund because of the redevelopment of east campus (is that completely dead at this point?…..that is development that makes sense and every investor is looking for a good investment, even the chinese….)

    Its this lack of bold innovative thinking that has CP doomed to be the mess that it is. the culture in CP is so negative and such a downer. instead of being positive, bold thinkers we have narrow minded self interested pessimists.

  10. Joe, I wonder if you have traveled through Beltsville and north College Park during rush hour. The traffic and infrastructure damage has already been done. David has lived in College Park and has observed a lot around town and been involved. Recently moving away from College Park does not invalidate what’s been going on over the last several years. Like Fox News, you’re giving misleading and irrelevant information to discredit a good story.

  11. John mentions REVENUE — what about all of the empty buildings up and down Rte 1 and else where in College Park? Why not fix them and get retail in them before you build new? The new student housing projects are having a hard time filling in their first floor retail areas. Maza went before the City asking for an extension in their site plan because they knew they could not fill the retail. Putting retail in existing empty buildings will also provide revenue to the City. It can also be done without destroying the environment.

  12. David, your comment is more reasonable than your post. However, all you are doing in the post is chasing a Washington Post story without doing inquiry on your own to examine what is being said, you are reporting Lasick’s comments as facts, and Dernoga’s as lies.

    1. The development Lasick refers to actually received to revitalization tax credit it was seeking. See CR-84-2008. I would remind you this was done as the economy was melting down, and local governments were facing severe budget constraints. This lines up with Dernoga’s statement that budgetary problems slowed it down. This was after the development was approved in early 2008, just look it up. Where is the big delay Lasick is talking about?

    See what a few minutes of digging turns up?

    2. Only Dernoga knows the motive behind trying to get money for his community, but you are unfair to him when you say in your post he did this for political advancement. He could have just as easily been doing it solely on the intention to better his community. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If you successfully “bring home the bacon” then there is usually political gain, regardless of whether you had good or bad intentions.

    What makes me exasperated over this is you and Lasick are questioning his ethics when the basis for that is a disagreement over his style. Bash his style all you want. There is a big difference and if you cross the line from style to ethics you need to be sure you know what happened.

  13. Jim, check your history. I assure you this donation is just one part of the back and forth Dernoga created during this project that delayed it over a year and threw it into the unstable economy. I didn’t mean to imply that it killed the project solely, but I can see how it reads that way. As Bob says above, Dernoga always stated proudly, the guy “liked to play with his food.” That meant he’d find basically any avenue to squeeze the developer. His basis for doing so was grounded in how much money the developer was making and frequently not on what really mattered to the community. That comes through clearly in his comments in the WashPo article where he’s stating his moral case, calling Lasick “greedy”, and continuing to ignore that the project (200 luxury units) would have been a phenomenal addition to a community accustomed to strip malls, porn stores, and tattoo parlors in its main retail corridor .

    For Dernoga, the development review process was about political grandstanding, not sound public policy. After the city council and staff and the county planning board vetted a project, Dernoga would unilaterally decide there was too much density, or not enough commercial, or the wrong kind of materials, or the building wasn’t green enough. Am I saying that the things he fought for were bad or wrong? No. I’m saying he went over the line and in several cases did more harm than good. If there is no certainty or clear ground rules, then there is no integrity in the development review process. No developer would ever propose a project under such a situation and that’s exactly what happened when word of Dernoga began to get around.

    Soliciting donations without any public scrutiny is plainly unethical. As I mention in the post, in most communities, such a stipulation would be part of a formal developer or community benefits agreement. I don’t care what his motive was. This isn’t a popularity contest no matter how much politicians would like it to be. This is about the nuances and subtleties of a process that your “few minutes of digging” will never uncover. It has nothing to do with style and everything to do with ethics, transparency, and the integrity of our institutions.

  14. Dernoga, Caitlin, Wojahn…all dirty crooks. It’s only a matter of time before a federal investigation into public corruption, ethics violations, bribery, extortion.

    I’m looking forward to the fallout…

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