- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2011

When Wal-Mart was looking for property to develop in Ward 6 for one of its four proposed D.C. stores, it didn’t have to go very far.

Politically connected lawyer and lobbyist David W. Wilmot, the company’s man in the District, had a financial interest in city-owned property on New Jersey Avenue in Northwest that he and his business partners had allowed to lay fallow for 21 years — renting it to the federal government as a parking lot for 18 of them.

Not many lobbyists can be players in deals they are lobbying for on behalf of a company like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., much less one involving city land and a long-term tenant who has failed to deliver on promises to a city in need of redevelopment.

But therearen’t many David Wilmotsin D.C. business and politics.

D.C. officials privately acknowledge that it takes connections to sit on city property for decades without developing it, saying such “land banking” often depends on faulty land-use policies and the exploitation of a dysfunctional city bureaucracy.

This government-owned lot at the intersection of New Jersey Avenue and H Street Northwest has allowed the Bennett Group to collect tax-free rent for years. It is now proposed for a multimillion-dollar project that includes a Wal-Mart. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The Washington Times)
This government-owned lot at the intersection of New Jersey Avenue and H ... more >

“I can’t speak to why this property was allowed to languish this long,”Jose Sousa, a spokesman for Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for economic development, said about the 161,000-square-foot parcelcurrently assessed by the city at $72 million. “It’s not the tact we take with our current project inventory.”

When first contacted months ago about Mr. Wilmot’s financial interest in the New Jersey Avenue property, Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said he was unaware of such a stake. But as ties between Mr. Wilmot and the tenant of record — the Bennett Group — became harder to ignore, Mr. Restivo confirmed that Mr. Wilmot disclosed his financial interest.

Mr. Restivo deferred further questions to the Bennett Group.

The precise relationship between Mr. Wilmot, a power broker since the first Marion Barry administration with interests in group homes for the developmentally disabled to parking lots, and the Bennett Group, headed by LuAnn Bennett, widow of Richard A. Bennett Jr. — who was a law partner of Mr. Wilmot — is unclear.

Ms. Bennett, now in the process of divorcing Rep. James P. Moran Jr., Virginia Democrat, declined requests for comment. Mr. Wilmot did not return calls or emails.

‘Nature of the business’

Charles Maier, a spokesman for the Bennett Group’s financing partner, JBG Cos., said neither the Bennett Group nor JBG has an obligation to disclose private relationships. “It’s just the nature of the business,” he said.

Yet what appears to be previously undisclosed financial interests in land banking arrangements can get messy, and the suddenly attractive piece of dirt between New Jersey Avenue to the west, I Street to the north, H Street to the south and the Gonzaga College High School campus to the east is in the midst of historically blighted neighborhoods near North Capitol Street.

So questions have been raised about how Mr. Wilmot and his partners were able to collect tax-free rent on D.C. land for years.

Now his client is planning a multimillion-dollar project, featuring a Wal-Mart store that sells groceries, 10,000 square feet of first-floor retail set aside for small businesses and several hundred apartments, some of which will be workforce housing.

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