Quarter of a Pentagon rises in my backyard: Media failure? And aren’t contractors’ campaign gifts worthy of mention?

Update: Jim Moran has since told me there was no quid pro quo, that the Indiana real estate developer's contributions were part of an arrangement by which the developer contributed to many people at once, apparently with an unrelated issue in mind. I appreciated the Moran response and will let readers judge for themselves.

image A quarter of a Pentagon—two high-rises for 6,400 workers, total, one-fourth of those in the world's largest office building—is rising within a mile or so of me even though no Metro station is close and the traffic jams are already LA-horrendous.

Despite upbeat comments from Mayor William Euille, a construction industry veteran, this isn’t the best news for the western part of Alexandria, Virginia. Air quality and lungs will suffer. The city will not be able to collect taxes from the military complex in the Mark Center area near Interstate 395. The $1-billion-plus complex is Uncle-owned and tax exempt, edging out properties that the city could tax. We're talking double whammy, then. Somewhat greater tax revenue from restaurants, shops and residential construction will not offset the misery that the Quarter Pentagon will inflict on Alexandrians and other commuters. And yet Alexandria might have to pay for emergency services such as ambulances, not to mention the public educations of the children of traffic-weary workers drawn to the city to be closer to their jobs.

image So did the news media blow this one—the real topic of my post? Did it investigate the political donations, for example, from business people profiting off the Quarter Pentagon? How about the $2,300 contribution from Dennis D. Oklak, chairman and CEO of an out-of-state real estate firm, to Congressman Jim Moran (D-Virginia, Eighth District, photo below) ? Granted, the $2,300 was a fraction of Moran’s donations, but my curiosity lingers. Was “Denny” Oklak, whose Duke Realty Company operates from Indianapolis, Indiana, trying to get Moran to soften his fervent opposition to the project? Does it matter that Duke was the company selling land for the building and is providing other services? Yes? No? Is it even possible that Congressman Moran was privately for the project at Mark Center despite public statements to the contrary, including traffic-related complaints? Interestingly, executives connected with the Clark Construction donated another $10,900 in donations to Moran, and the Clark firm is building the 15- and 17-story towers under a $695-million contract. Mere coincidence? Was the money related to the monster project or possible future business in any way?

imageWhether Moran was a devil or a haloed and winged hero who thumbed his nose at Oklak’s wishes regardless of the $2,300—I don’t know—this series of events offers us a little insight into how Washington works and how the national and local scenes can intersect. If nothing else, one classical issue here is “access”: the increased chances of a wealthy donor to get a serious hearing, from a powerful recipient next time Multimillionaire X is competing for a favor in D.C. Jim Moran sits on the House Appropriations Committee and deals there with defense-related matters, relevant to the project, known in military-ese as BRAC-133 in honor of the Base Realignment and Closure initiative.

The other big issue is the complex itself and whether the media has paid enough attention. The water-under-the bridge argument won’t, er, hold water even though the project is already a very real part of the skyline in western Alexandria, complete with a Web cam to show the progress of construction. Should the electorate have read and heard more about it in the media? Many critics of big government, inside or outside the Tea Party, my political opposite, might consider BRAC-133 to be rant-worthy. Boosters of the project can go on and on about cost savings compared to alternatives. But when you consider all the time lost in traffic and the greater risk of auto accidents compared to the current Arlington location’s (other D.C.-area drivers as the real terrorists?), might the taxpayers lose out in the end? Some skeptics might question even the national security arguments. If security is so important, why not harden the current buildings in Crystal City? Or, if that isn’t possible, why not even move the offices out of town, beyond H bomb range of Ground Zero at the Pentagon? Is BRAC-133—authorized by the Bush Administration, the same crew that privatized the Iraq War for their cronies—just another military boondoggle with a plenty of complicity from the other side of the aisle?

In a fair and timely way, the media should try to provide the voters with detailed information to help them make up their own minds on issues like BRAC-133. And commentary and in-depth opinion and analysis—labeled as such, if the writer is appearing in a mainstream publication such as the Washington Post, rather than in a blog—can help. This is one reason why I’m so much in favor of hyperlocal journalism, topic of a series in this blog. At its best, such journalism can help give the middle class a a little more control over their lives. “Metro” coverage isn’t enough. If the Post wants to remain the dominant paper in my suburb and deserve it, shouldn’t the paper figure out a way to scale up locally and hyperlocally and tell us at least half as much about Mayor Euille (both the good and the bad) as about the problematic D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty whom D.C. citizens so correctly voted out of office? Is Alexandria’s  Mayor Euille biased in favor of development, thanks to his trade, despite all his campaign rhetoric about preserving the environment? Or in his guts, in talking up the BRAC project, is he simply doing what he feels is best for Alexandria? That’s the kind of analysis that’s AWOL from the Washington Post’s coverage of my city.

Please note that in Mark Center’s case, the records of the Post and other newspapers are far from absolutely dismal. When the bulldozers started up, one Web commenter complained of a surprise (“small amount of coverage…so no one in the neighborhood…really had any idea what was about to happen”) and griped that the Post had ignored “a scandal brewing on your doorstep.” Along with Alexandria publications, the Post at least carried the Amy’s 2008 announcement that it had chosen the Mark Center location. The Post has run other stories, too, and Alexandria publications such as the Alexandria Gazette Packet have hardly ignored the controversy. Even so, has the Post's coverage, at least, really been adequate? It easily could have boosted this to a major story—given the billion-dollars-plus and the issue of whether Washington could better have spent the money on, say, troop training or more useful stimuli of economies in this area and elsewhere.

Ideally the Post will both cover major Alexandria issues better and link to appropriate local blogs, in context so readers don’t confuse outside opinion with the Post’s staff-originated news. Among the must-links might be the Lincolnia Hills & Heywood Glen blog, which is crammed with information on the project at Mark Center, including questions and other uppity writings on the ticklish issue of which officials authorized the towers. I was especially intrigued by one citizen’s letter asking who changed the wording in an authorization bill so that a possible location might be not just Fort Belvoir or an old warehouse site, but also another place near Belvoir. The Post could also help Alexandrians—in fact, readers everywhere, on many different stories—by issuing geo-coded email alerts for interested readers. And how about incorporating cookie-based hyperlocal coverage on the home page of the Post Web site. Neighborhood-oriented sites wouldn’t be such a bad idea, either. Then readers would be less likely to complain of lack of coverage when in fact stories existed.

imageMore immediately, I would like to see the Post, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, the TBD.com hyperlocal site, TV stations,  Patch.com and other media ask the questions I’ve just raised. How about the campaign contributions to officials such as Moran from people related to BRAC-133; and care to see what might be happening at the city and state levels as well? Duke’s Oklak, who gave his $2,300 to Moran on Oct. 23, 2008, certainly has some interesting company as a BRAC-133-tied donor. Double-click on the image for a better view of $10,900 in relatively recent donations to Moran from executives of Clark Construction and its parent, Clark Enterprises. Here are some dates of Clark-related donations—probably overlapping because of campaign functions, although I don’t know (a mere guess). May 24, 2006: $1,000 each from Clark Construction CEO Peter C. Forster, Clark Enterprises Vice President Robert Flanagan, Clark Enterprises President Lawrence C. Nussdorf and Clark Construction Group President Dan Montgomery (a tidy total of $4,000). June 30, 2008: $2,300 each from Forster, Montgomery and Nussdorf (ka-ching—$6,900 more!). Just so it’s clear, the Clark & Weinstock consulting firm on the list shows up under the “Clark”-based sorting I requested from the OpenSecrets.org site; the two C & B donors mentioned have nothing to do with the construction company or the project at Mark Center.

And again, I’ll not pass judgment based simply on the names and dollar amounts listed at OpenSecrets.org. Kudos to Moran if he placed constituents’ welfare over cash (even if that doesn’t do away with questions related to the access issue and the expectations of politicians and donors). But if nothing else, the media just may want to submit Freedom of Information requests to the Pentagon—and sleuth around on Capitol Hill—to help determine if Moran all along has hated the BRAC-133 project as much as he said.

Commenting on the Moran situation in particular, including an Indiana CEO’s generosity toward a Northern Virginia politician, here's what Dave Levinthal, Communications Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, the organization behind OpenSecrets.org, told me: "Oftentimes people who have a major financial stake in a particular geographical area will give money and sometimes a good deal of money to that local congressional representative. Whether that money sways that politician one way or another is often very difficult to ascertain. That being said, money goes a long way toward buying access to a politician. It goes a long way in terms of getting yourself into an exclusive fund-raiser and if you’ve been financially kind to a politician, it’s more difficult for them to ignore you, to put you off, to not return your phone call, particularly if you’re a dedicated donor to them and particularly if a number of people who all work for the same company are donating, too.”

That’s a good assessment, as I see it. No proven quid pro quo, no known crimes in BRAC-133’s case—but if nothing else, this is American politics as usual. The difference is that these issues have arisen almost literally in my backyard. Everyone has a backyard. And when mega projects come along like BRAC-133 and gems show up like the Indiana contribution, the press should remind us of the access factor if nothing else. Maybe if enough journalists localize the access-donations issue, public indignation will grow to the the point where Congress has no choice but to toughen up the campaign laws—especially in regard to donations from federal contractors and prospective contractors. For a quick summary of federal campaign laws as they affect government contractors, see a pamphlet from the Federal Election Commission, which among other things says that sole proprietors with federal contracts can’t contribute to influence elections, but that employees of corporations are exempt if they draw from personal accounts. Talk about major loopholes! I’m not suggesting that the law ban clerks at Duke Realty or assembly-line workers at General Motors from donating their own money—as opposed to corporately supplied funds—if this is truly their decision rather than meant to please their bosses. But shouldn’t restrictions cover potential favor-seekers like Oklak and his counterparts at Clark, whether or not quid pro quos exist?

image As a matter of courtesy, even though this is commentary rather than a news article, I’ll invite Rep. Moran (with whom I usually agree on the issues) to respond point by point. Why does he think that a CEO from Indiana would want to contribute $2,300 to him, the maximum or near-maximum allowed by an individual to a candidate in a primary or general election? And would he himself favor tougher restrictions on donations from government contractors, particularly those employed by corporations rather than acting for themselves? If Moran can discuss his role or nonrole in expanding the authorization bill to allow for locations like Mark Center, then so much the better. Also, I’ll ask Duke Realty and Clark if they want to explain their people’s Moran donations. An access-related matter? Would they be as generous if Moran didn’t sit on the Appropriations Committee and on a defense-related subcommittee? Just why does Duke Realty’s Dennis Oklak give to politicians around the country, with widely diverging ideologies (click here for a better view of examples of this)? A mix of personal convictions and hope for access in D.C. to protect and expand Duke's business? Are any of the contractors mentioned here in favor of campaign reforms, so that, for example, their business activities are more more separated from the political process and merit counts more in contract awards? These issue are systemic and go far, far beyond Moran, Oklak, the Clark executives and BRAC-133.

(Creative Common-licensed photo of BRAC-133 complex.)

Related: Lincolnia blog’s item on the petition to stop Alexandria from increasing density in the Beauregard Corridor. Whether petitions are pro- or anti-development, this is the sort of thing about which hyperlocal journalism can help spread the word.

Update, 1:10 p.m.: Tweaked and added to the questions section at the bottom and fixed some job-title-related information in the section listing contributions from Clark. Also linked to a helpful news release from Duke describing its exact role in the project.

Update, 1:50 p.m.: Let me emphasize I am factoring in the limited resources of local publications like the Alexandria Gazette Packet and the Alexandria Times and AlexandriaNews.org (all valuable for followers of the city's politics) and even of the local side of the Post. But here's the thing. Federal campaign records are no longer so obscure these days. The OpenSecrets site and similar ones are treasure troves. The most definitive searches might be directly at the FEC site although you may find others to be better organized.

Update, September 29: I’ve just posted Quarter Pentagon debate: Engaged civic blogging in action, with detailed questions for pols.

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David Rothman

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