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A Washington tale of money, access and lobbying

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Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., is correct that moving more than 6,000 Defense Department employees from a building right at a Metro subway stop to one just off an already-congested highway is fraught with peril.

But Moran's proposed fix -- keeping DOD in its current lease at Crystal City as long as possible -- would also benefit a politically connected developer who recently became his No. 1 source of campaign contributions. Because Moran's substantive case is strong, there's no reason to posit corruption or a quid pro quo. But following the money provides an interesting case study in the way Washington works -- and how money, access and lobbying are intertwined.

Here are the basics: In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended closing DOD offices in Crystal City, and moving them. In the end, DOD settled on putting 6,400 of these workers in a new building in Alexandria, just off Interstate 395, called the Mark Center. The biggest problem for the workers and for the region: Crystal City is on the Metro, while the Mark Center is not. Workers who have been taking the Blue or Yellow lines to work would need to drive or take a shuttle. This would cause headaches for Mark Center neighbors, DOD employees, and other drivers on 395.

But there's another loser who doesn't get as much media attention: Vornado Realty.

Vornado owns the Crystal City buildings where DOD now resides. The move to the Mark Center would cost Vornado one huge tenant (that will never go out of business). By the time BRAC released its recommendations in 2005, Crystal City had already lost the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and, according to the Washington Business Journal, vacancy rates in the area climbed to 11.5 percent by the end of March 2006. As the largest landlord in Crystal City, Vornado would suffer directly from losing DOD leases, and also indirectly because surrounding businesses -- many of which served DOD's Crystal City personnel -- would take a hit.

BRAC released its recommendations in May 2005, and one month later Vornado hired K Street giant Patton Boggs as its lobbyist (the developer had been without a registered lobbyist since 2003). Patton Boggs' lobbying registration said the firm would represent Vornado on BRAC, and that the lobbyists would be Tommy Boggs, Jack Deschauer and Ed Newberry.

Two months later, Moran -- whose district includes both the Mark Center and Crystal City -- received his first reported contributions from employees of Vornado. Vornado's then-CEO, Steven Roth, President Michael Fascitelli, CFO Joseph Macnow and New York office President David Greenbaum all cut $500 checks to Moran on Aug. 26. Since then, the donations have accelerated, and in his last re-election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Moran raised more money from Vornado than from any other company.

There's also the lobbyist money. Together with his wife, Vornado lobbyist Newberry of Patton Boggs has donated a reported $18,950 to Moran's campaigns. Moran has also pocketed Patton Boggs PAC money in each of the last four elections, including $5,000 in the last cycle, which is tied for the most the firm's PAC gave any candidate.

Moran began pushing hard to delay the move, citing legitimate concerns about traffic and parking around the Mark Center. In 2009, the Pentagon announced that it would keep its Crystal City leases with Vornado through 2014, three years after BRAC recommendations were supposed to be implemented. Moran has also inserted a provision into the current Defense Authorization bill that would allow the Pentagon to postpone the move to the Mark Center, to the pleasure of Vornado.

Moran has plenty of good reasons to postpone the move. The I-395 exit near the Mark Center is being expanded, adding lanes to local roads. Many Metro-dependent employees would probably look for new jobs rather than shell out for a car.

For these reasons, Moran's actions shouldn't be seen as cronyism, and the Vornado and Patton Boggs donations should not be understood as bribes. But the whole story shows an unfortunate and unseemly truth about Washington: If you rely on government for your income, as Vornado does, lobbying inevitably becomes part of your business strategy. And when it comes to getting access to powerful lawmakers, nothing beats some campaign contributions.

Vornado hired Patton Boggs and Newberry in 2005, both of which had given to Moran. Vornado executives also started giving as a group and giving generously, ensuring they would get Moran's ear.

In this case, the developer's interest -- extending DOD's lease as long as possible -- might coincide with the public interest. But that doesn't make the trail of money and lobbyists any less unseemly.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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