Monday, November 29, 2010

Peary HS Deal: What Really Happened

At the Montgomery County (MD) Council Public Hearing on the proposed sale of Peary High School property (19-1/2 acres) to the private parochial Berman Academy, held on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 23rd, Mr. Drew Powell testified against the sale.  He was challenged by the councilmembers as to his testimony but not allowed time to respond.  That exchange was recorded in the RockvillePatch by reporter Sean Sedam, as follows:
"If you have evidence to the contrary I urge you to bring it forward. If you do not, I suggest that linking these very disparate situations in the manner in which you did does a disservice to this community and to yourself."
"I would like to respond," Powell said.
"There is no response," said County Council President Nancy M. Floreen..."

Here is Mr. Powell's response.

November 29, 2010
Montgomery County Council
100 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, MD 20850
Re: Requested response to Montgomery County Council regarding possible sale of MCPS property

Montgomery County Council,

Per Councilmember Berliner’s request, I respectfully wish to respond in writing, regarding the proposed sale of Peary High School and its relationship to the sale of Belt Junior High School as well as other similar transactions involving publicly owned Montgomery County School properties. I would have provided this information live at the November 23rd hearing, but after being asked to produce information on this subject, was silenced by County Council President, Nancy Floreen.

Before I begin, I would again wish to state that the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy is, by all accounts, an upstanding educational institution and a good neighbor in the Aspen Hill community. I am not aware of any
wrong doing on the part of the Academy, but am very concerned with the process that has bought the
Montgomery County Council to point of selling off county this school property. I am very supportive of the
Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy leasing Peary High School for the term of the lease (2023) and possibly
decades longer as provided by mutually agreed upon lease extensions.
confuse the Yeshiva Academy with the Hebrew Academy.” I can assure you that there is no confusion.
My journey on this matter started in 2002, when researching campaign contributions on behalf of the citizen based county watchdog group Neighbors for a Better Montgomery. At that time many citizens were concerned with the possible role of potential developer influence on land use decisions made by the Montgomery County Council. It was thought that some of this influence might present itself in the form of campaign contributions from developers and development related interests to county council candidates.
It came as a great shock to Montgomery County citizens, when it was found that in many cases more than half of many candidates’ political contributions came from development related interests. In some cases, as much as 70% or more came from these sources. Neighbors’ researchers continued to explore the sources of campaign contributions. As part of that investigation, a seemingly innocent contribution of $4,000 from, of all places, Guam, made to then County Executive Doug Duncan in 1999, caught our attention. As is well documented in three articles by the Washington Post, other contributions were discovered, which linked that money and donations from the Pacific island of Saipan to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Post-1, Post-2, Post-3). The Post articles then connected the dots regarding contributions from Abramoff and other Yeshiva board members, including Dennis Berman and Jeffrey Lee Cohen. According to the Post “The Saipan contributions occurred a month before Duncan signed a lease -- over community and school system opposition…” The Post articles delineated the role of then Duncan aid, Jerry Pasternak, in the engineering of the Belt Junior High School deal.

Although there may have been no wrong doing on the part of the Academy, its operatives or sympathetic elected officials, it appears that many of the same people involved with the Belt Junior High School transaction are now and have been involved with the Peary transaction. Additionally, many of the same methods and instruments used to guaranty the purchase of Belt have been employed in the efforts to secure Peary.

Foremost is Mr. Pasternak’s role. The Post was most explicit regarding Pasternak’s role in the Belt Junior High School sale. Concurrently, Mr. Pasternak vigorously promoted the lease and sale of Peary High School. I attended an MFP meeting in 2006, where Councilmembers Praisner, Denis and Andrews received lengthy, enthusiastic support for the sale of Peary High School from Mr. Pasternak. In his presentation, sitting next to a Berman Academy representative, Mr. Pasternak continued to refer to himself and the Academy as “we,” even though he was acting as the representative of the Montgomery County Executive and theoretically the citizens of Montgomery County. The sale was tabled at that time, partly because of prior Planning Board rejection of the sale, the Belt/Abramoff revelations and the recommendations of the ZHA report, which advised the county not to sell the property.

Also at issue is Mr. Pasternak’s seemingly unlimited access to the County Executive’s office and close working relationship with the County Executive’s Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Diane Schwartz Jones. As a former county employee, Mr. Pasternak enjoyed numerous meetings and information exchanges with Schwartz Jones concerning the sale of Peary High School. Additional exchanges may have occurred with Schwartz Jones and the Academy’s representatives from Garson Claxton, LLC (law firm), Mr. Pasternak’s current employer.

Also keep in mind that the Peary lease predated the Belt Junior High School lease by a little more than two years. Both leases were approved and signed by then County Executive Doug Duncan, an elected official the Post cited for taking campaign contributions in return for selling county school land. Both leases are extremely similar in their language and lease/purchase terms. It has been stated by some that one or both leases were prepared by Garson Claxton, LLC, the “go to” law firm in the Washington, D.C. metro area regarding leases.

For future county land sales, it may be prudent to start with a county written “boilerplate” lease, making future leases more taxpayer friendly.  Sale of Montgomery County school property to the aforementioned parties is not limited to Peary High School and Belt Junior High School. Other properties include, Arcola Elementary School, Town and Country Day School and Montgomery Hills Middle School. In each of these transactions, many citizens were concerned with the low sales price and other related costs to the county. The Post documented County costs regarding Belt Junior High School in a 2006 article “Yeshiva Facility Deals Costly for Montgomery.” It is easy to see why many might ask if these are “cookie-cutter” deals at the expense of taxpayers.

It must also be noted that in addition to contributions to former County Councilmembers and the former County Executive, Berman Academy interests have donated more than $31,000 to current Montgomery County Councilmembers as well as the current County Executive since the first proposals were made to convert the Peary lease to a sale. Most notably are contributions to County Executive Leggett for more than $17,000 and Councilmember Leventhal for over $9,000 (provided upon request). These donations do not include contributions, which may be reported in January, 2011.

Troubling, too, in this process, the sponsor to sell Peary comes in the form a lame-duck councilmember, not to mention that the proposed sale will be voted on by a lame-duck council, immediately after an election.

Many have asked why a majority of the Montgomery County Council would go forward with the sale of school property for pennies on the dollar in these austere economic times, when the Montgomery County Board of Education and even your own staff (Montgomery County Council Staff) has strongly recommended against it.

There may not have been wrong doing, but the sale of this valuable and irreplaceable Montgomery County asset is a textbook example of special interest access and potential manipulation of local government. It is a sad day indeed in Montgomery County, when concerned citizens come before the County Council to express their apprehensions about the sale of public school property and are summarily booed, jeered and dismissed with the tacit approval of councilmembers. Which of you will stand up for taxpayers and ALL the county’s children?

Most sincerely,

Drew Powell

1 comment:

  1. There is no response to Council member Floreen's lack of knowledge about State law.

    When Montgomery County ends up with zero dollars from this sale what will be her response?


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