- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2010

HOBOKEN, N.J. | With a rooftop pool and 24-hour concierge service, the new luxury condominiums off Frank Sinatra Drive here seem an unlikely spot in need of a multimillion-dollar federal giveaway.

Yet U.S. taxpayers doled out at least $8 million on a public walkway and park space in front of the Maxwell Place development here overlooking the New York City skyline - an amenity the development touts alongside its entertainment lounge, rooftop hot tub and theater screening room.

But the decision to use tax dollars to fund the walkway project was made after private developers had already agreed in 2003 to pay for it - indeed, it was a key condition for getting the project off the ground, according to public records and interviews.

Still, under the so-called earmarking process, by which Capitol Hill lawmakers slip requests for pet projects into larger spending bills, Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrats, later pushed for millions of dollars in federal funding for the project.

In the swamp of federal earmark funding, $8 million isn’t a lot. But critics say the project is emblematic of why the earmark process so enrages many taxpayers.

Mr. Lautenberg and Mr. Menendez combined have received approximately $100,000 in campaign donations from executives of past and current developers of the Hoboken project and their employees over the years, federal election records show.

What’s more, the developers’ lobbyist, whose firm reaped more than $200,000 in lobbying fees, was a longtime senior aide to Mr. Menendez, who was a member of the House when the lawmakers secured funding for the project in 2005.

Neither Mr. Menendez nor Mr. Lautenberg said the donations influenced their decisions. They also said they were unaware that the developer had already agreed to spend millions of its own dollars to complete the walkway.

The public walkway and park were dedicated by city officials last year, and developers, on top of the money from the federal government, separately paid out millions of dollars for the project. But questions persist. Watchdog groups, while noting there was nothing illegal about earmarking federal funds for the project, question the push for taxpayer money if developers already were obligated to foot the bill.

“If it already was going to be done by the private sector, why would we swoop in and pick up the majority of the costs?” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “That same $8 million could have been used on other worthwhile projects.”

But aides said the lawmakers sought the money because the city asked for it.

“The agreement with the private entity was made by the city and the decision to press for a federal investment was made by the city, with the state’s support,” Menendez spokesman Afshin Mohamadi said. “It would seem to me that questions about how that process came about should be asked at the local level.”

Mr. Lautenberg’s office agreed: “At the request of the City of Hoboken, Sen. Lautenberg and his colleagues requested funding for this walkway and improvements to the waterfront because of its great benefit to the community, allowing residents of the area to enjoy the river and a unique open space in an urban environment,” said Lautenberg spokesman Caley Gray.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said congressional offices probably didn’t give as much scrutiny to a request made by a city as they would have if a private company had been asking for the money directly.

The development has changed hands over the years, but the earmark ultimately benefited a subsidiary of Toll Brothers, a publicly traded company that calls itself the nation’s leading builder of luxury homes. The push for public funding began before Toll Brothers owned the site.

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