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“I forced developers to turn over everything that had been land banked throughout the 1980s,” Mr. Malone recently told The Washington Times. “I told ‘em to build, pay or get off. A lot of land came back to us,” he said, pointing to the later redeveloped Gallery Place and Columbia Heights sections of town.

Butwhen asked about the ground lease at the Bennett Group’s New Jersey Avenue site, Mr. Malone said he could not recall.

“I don’t know how I missed that one,” he said.

Former mentor

Pressed for details, Mr. Malone does recall, however, that Mr. Wilmot, his former mentor at Georgetown Law School who served on the transition committee that recommended him for his Cabinet-level post, had been law partners with Mr. Bennett.

“I tried to break some of those agreements and take back the land, but some of them were ironclad,” he said. Asked to defend either the deal with the Bennett Group or the principle of land-use reform, Mr. Malone did both: “It doesn’t appear they did anything wrong except outsmart the District. I’m pro-development, but it sounds like a brilliant business move.

“But it’s unbelievable that the District could have so much land off the tax rolls, then to let people land bank on top of it,” he said.

Asked about Mr. Wilmot’s dual role as land banker and Wal-Mart lobbyist, now that two decades later his client and his partners in the Bennett Group are developing the property, Mr. Malone said, “I don’t know what the hell that is. That’s interesting.”

Ms. Pratt, a one-term mayor, seemed similarly perplexed.

“It’s not in the city’s interest to tolerate land banking if it’s not centered around a clear set of objectives,” she told The Times. “To just allow such arrangements to continue ad infinitum without strategic goals? I don’t understand it.”

Successors to the Pratt administration continued to wrestle with the District’s untaxed and underdeveloped land problem, while Mr. Wilmot and the Bennett Group continued to collect tax-free rent from the GPO throughout much of the 1990s.

Kenneth R. Kimbrough was the District’s chief property manager from 1998 to 2000 under Mayor Anthony A. Williams. By then, the city’s finances were in shambles after the last of Mr. Barry’s terms as mayor and a congressional control board was overseeing city finances.

Mr. Kimbrough said a mandate of the era was to establish a central agency and database to oversee land dispositions. Reviewing deals that were cut during the Barry administration, he said, “We found a lot of goofy transactions, to be kind. Like, why’d he do that?

“Our marching orders were: Clean this mess up,” he said.

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