D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray campaigned on a promise to put an end to backroom dealings in city business and politics.
But a looming dispute between the District and Safeway regarding a covenant to keep other grocery stores out of a Ward 7 shopping center being developed by Wal-Mart raises the question of whether that is possible, in light of the mayor's relationship with key players in a development that tops his list of priorities.
The competing interests of Wal-Mart and Safeway at the Skyland Town Center — a large parcel seized by the District through eminent domain and financed with Housing and Urban Development grants — are represented by D.C. lobbyist David W. Wilmot and Maryland lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, two close friends of Mr. Gray, who on Tuesday are co-hosting a fundraiser for at-large independent council member Michael A. Brown, chairman of the Housing and Workforce Development Committee, at Mr. Wilmot's home.
A powerful deal maker, Mr. Wilmot also is a prolific fundraiser who has hosted or is planning to host other events this year for Ward 7 Democrat Yvette M. Alexander, whom he represented in an Office of Campaign Finance investigation and whose treasurer and other advisers do work on behalf of Wal-Mart; Ward 4 Democrat Muriel Bowser, who represents the area around a separate Wal-Mart site; Ward 2 Democrat Jack Evans, chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee; and council member Vincent B. Orange, an at-large Democrat.
Mr. Wilmot also co-hosted a fundraiser for Mr. Gray in 2010.
But while Mr. Wilmot's intentions are clear — to persuade the city to avoid a decades-old promise to Safeway to prevent other grocery stores at Skyland — Mr. Bereano's may not be so simple to discern.
A longtime friend who helped the mayor break the color barrier at a George Washington University fraternity, Mr. Bereano's firm has donated directly to Mr. Gray and he has taken criticism for soliciting funds while invoking the name of Mr. Gray's cousin, Delegate James Proctor Jr., a key member of the Maryland House's Appropriations Committee.
Mr. Bereano remains an influential lobbyist in spite of his 1990s conviction on federal mail-fraud charges in a campaign finance scheme involving lobbying clients for which he served a 10-month sentence and was disbarred in Maryland and the District.
The Safeway negotiations are being handled by Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, a scenario Mr. Gray failed to mention at a recent news conference called to tout Skyland as his highest priority project.
The proposed Skyland Wal-Mart is one of two stores the retailer is bringing to the District, which originally planned four stores.
At a Las Vegas convention this year, the mayor was quoted as telling Wal-Mart officials they could build five stores or none. Though he later said he was joking, Mr. Gray has said he all but pleaded with Wal-Mart to become Skyland's anchor tenant.
Skyland's lead developer is The Rappaport Companies of McLean, Va., but a key partner is William C. Smith and Co., which is headed by Chris Smith, another longtime friend of Mr. Gray.
In 2009, The Washington Times reported that a subcontractor of Mr. Smith's firm performed repairs at Mr. Gray's Ward 7 home in Southeast, near Skyland.
At the time, Mr. Gray, then D.C. Council chairman, declared that despite a longtime personal relationship with Mr. Smith, he has never used his position to favor the well-known developer.
Yet D.C. Council records and news reports from 2010 show that while there was a spending freeze on new development, Mr. Gray used the chairmanship to place Skyland at the top of the legislative agenda.
Recently Mr. Gray left no doubt that landing Wal-Mart as the anchor tenant at Skyland is a top priority.
On Tuesday, Elaine Mittleman, a Virginia attorney who since 2004 has represented businesses and residents displaced by the eminent domain at Skyland, said, "It's all about the wheeler-dealers now, politics as usual, instead of people in the community who were supposed to benefit from HUD funding. They've become invisible."
After a report surfaced Tuesday in The Washington Post about Safeway as an obstacle to Wal-Mart at Skyland, Mr. Hoskins' office declined to discuss the role of lobbyists, but said it was working with Safeway and keeping the community apprised of the project's progress, with a goal of providing "quality retail, dining and residential options" for Ward 7 residents.
Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle declined to say how his company intends to resolve its concerns about the covenant.
With regards to lobbyists for Safeway and Wal-Mart co-hosting a fundraiser for a councilman charged with oversight of HUD grants to the District, Mr. Muckle said he was unsure if Safeway restricts its representatives on political fundraising.
He added that usually Mr. Bereano "doesn't raise money for candidates without our knowledge, to ensure it's someone we support."
However, when asked if Mr. Bereano disclosed fundraising on behalf of Mr. Brown, Mr. Muckle said, "That's news to me."
Mr. Brown said on Tuesday he has no special relationship with either Safeway or Wal-Mart, and he has not spoken with Mr. Bereano or Mr. Wilmot about Skyland.
He declined to mention Tuesday's fundraiser.
Said Ms. Mittleman, "It's all about who goes to whose fundraiser. Corporations should be able to manage real estate deals without help from the District."
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