Cong OH-14: LaTourette (R) Awash With Campaign Cash From GSA Development Deal Recipients
There's a powerful stink of pay-to-play influence-peddling coming from Ohio's 14th Congressional District, despite the denial by Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Painesville) of any wrongdoing after his name came up in the Abramoff scandal. Records show that LaTourette has received large amounts of campaign cash from the Ratner family of Cleveland, of the Forest City real estate empire, who recently received a colossal development contract from a federal agency supervised by a LaTourette-chaired Congressional subcommittee.
The Abramoff connection ultimately may be only a small part of the story, but a brief review of that connection is a helpful starting place. LaTourette is a member of the powerful Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and was the Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management during the 107th and 108th Congress (2001-2005). That subcommittee has authority over the General Service Administation, which is in charge of federal property generally and the sale and leasing of federal land specifically. Bush loyalist and former gambling lobbyist David Safavian was the chief of staff of the GSA from July 2002 to November 2003, when Bush appointed him administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He was convicted in June 2006 of lying to a GSA ethics officer when he said that Abramoff was not seeking business with the agency at the time the lobbyist paid for Safavian and several others to go on a golf outing to Scotland in August 2002. At the time of the trip, Abramoff was trying to get GSA approval for leases of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington for an Indian tribe to develop and for federal property in Maryland for use by a Jewish school. Safavian testified that he gave Abramoff tips on how to use members of Congress to navigate the agency's bureaucracy. As an apparent result of this schooling, LaTourette and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) signed a letter to GSA official Steve Perry in September 2002, urging the agency to give preferential treatment to disadvantaged business groups (under a program that would include Abramoff's Indian tribe clients) when evaluating development proposals for the Old Post Office. The letter was actually written by Neil Volz, former associate of Abramoff and recently a staffer to disgraced Rep. Bob Ney (R-Heath), who last May pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in the Abramoff investigation. In February 2006, LaTourette returned a $1000 contribution that he had received in October 2005 from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, an Abramoff client also linked to Volz. LaTourette claims that he did nothing improper by advocating special opportunities for disadvantaged businesses, and points out that the letter did not advocate any particular business over another.
The Safavian/Volz letter-writing episode in 2002 appears to have opened the floodgates for others interested in doing business with the GSA to contribute much larger amounts to LaTourette. In particular, the Ratner family of northeastern Ohio, principals of Forest City Enterprises, and Michael Salzberg and Deborah Ratner Salzberg of Maryland, of Salco Mechanical Industries, Inc., have contributed $112,000 to LaTourette in the last three election cycles. (This is just the total attributable to individuals, based on the database of FEC information at Open Secrets. I understand that there are also contributions to LaTourette from Arent Fox, a Washington firm that represents Forest City, and there may be many other contributions from other Forest City-connected individuals and organizations as well.) Those individuals contributed nothing to LaTourette in the 2000 election cycle. Ratner family members contributed the much smaller total of $35,700 to LaTourette in the 1996 and 1998 cycles.
It is important to note that the Ratner family and Forest City are intensely interested in gambling. They and other Cleveland interests formed the Ohio Earn and Learn Committee, which is spending something like $15 million to promote a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in Ohio this November that would place slot machines at certain race tracks and in other locations in Cleveland, including a location controlled by Forest City. If the measure passes, the promoters estimate the slot machine revenues could exceed $2.5 billion per year, with 38% slated for education and economic development. Forest City also has an interest in a gambling/development opportunity in Pittsburgh. Gambling is thus a common thread connecting them to David Safavian, the former gaming lobbyist, and Abramoff and his Indian tribe clients, also pursuing gambling opportunities.
Why the sudden flow of Ratner/Salzberg money to LaTourette? The answer appears to be that in June 2005, Forest City was awarded an enormous contract by the GSA to develop 44 acres of the Southeast Federal Center in Washington DC. A little background is necessary here. The Southeast Federal Center, referred to as the SEFC, is located along the Anacostia River within a mile of the U.S. Capitol Building. It was an ordinance production facility for the U.S. Navy in World War II and more recently was the site of Marine barracks. Plans for redevelopment have been in the works for over a decade, but didn't take off until passage in May 2002 of the Southeast Federal Center Public-Private Development Act of 2000. The key provisions of this law authorized the GSA wide latitude in the types of leasing and contracting it could negotiate, and exempted the project from a variety of federal laws and requirements. LaTourette argued for these exemptions on the House floor, citing the need to attract a larger array of development bids. One big project resulting from this law is the new headquarters of the Department of Transportation. However, the Forest City deal is bigger. Here is the description from the GSA web site:
By leveraging the private sector’s creativity, experience, and resources, GSA will achieve its goal of transforming the SEFC site into an asset where office workers, residents and visitors can live and work. This includes promoting an exciting mixture of land uses including office space, residential uses, and other commercial uses together with a waterfront park, open space, and innovative design.Much more research is needed on the ties among the Ratner/Salzberg interests, LaTourette, the GSA, and the variety of people and firms who lobby for those interested in gambling/development opportunities. I am certain that the constellation of small contributions linked to these people and companies is much larger than what I have noted, and the precise interaction of LaTourette and his subcommittee and the GSA remains to be detailed. However, the whole situation is at the least extremely suspicious, just based on what has been uncovered to date.
On June 2, 2005, GSA announced in a press release that it “turned over the keys” to Forest City Washington for the phased development of 44 acres at the Southeast Federal Center on the banks of the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, DC. The development agreement between GSA and the commercial and residential real estate company provides for 3.2 million square feet of residential use, and 2 million square feet for commercial, retail, and cultural space. In addition, there will be a 5-acre waterfront park with a promenade along the Anacostia River, and other public amenities.