Mollohan, Town Do Battle Over Earmark

Posted May 21, 2007 at 6:31pm

The driving force behind earmarks is the notion that constituents back home will embrace the arrival of federal largesse in their neighborhoods.

But a town in West Virginia is trying to undo an earmark by taking back land a local nonprofit bought with federal money provided in an earmark from Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.).

Mollohan has been under investigation amid allegations that he has channeled earmarks to friends and campaign contributors and that he has profited personally from federal land purchases near property he owns.

Mollohan has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any offense, but he stepped down from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct last year when the investigation into his earmarks was revealed.

Since then, one of his earmarks has become a local battleground and appears likely to drag the Department of Commerce into a legal fight over land that Mollohan directed the agency to buy.

In February, Mollohan wrote to the Commerce Department warning that one of his earmarks was in jeopardy and suggesting “it appears that it is necessary for the Department to become a party to this case in order to protect its investment in the project and the property in issue.”

Mollohan was referring to an attempt by the town of Davis, W.Va., to condemn 6 acres of the portion of land that the Canaan Valley Institute bought in 2002 for $7 million, money that came from earmarks Mollohan had attached to the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The town argues that the land in question is perilously close to the reservoir that supplies the local drinking water, and construction within the area could foul the water. In a 2005 complaint in county court, the town claimed that “the mayor and water workers discovered excavating work a rock’s throw from the town water impoundment.”

The fact that the land is actually owned by the federal government led the institute’s lawyer to move the case to federal court. Commerce must respond by Wednesday to a motion by the CVI to compel the federal government to join the case as a defendant.

Mollohan takes credit for creating the CVI, which since 1995 has studied watershed science and conservation in northern West Virginia, and he has provided a steady stream of earmarks to the organization to sustain it.

But the earmarks for the institute and other Mollohan-sponsored nonprofits have not been without controversy in the county, which has raised concerns about the increase in tax-exempt property. Davis Mayor Joe Drenning, who said he would not discuss the condemnation case because it is in litigation, said “probably 60 percent of the county is either no taxes or very little taxes” because it is either held by federal agencies or federally funded nonprofit groups such as the CVI.

The county sheriff pursued a tax claim against the CVI property and attempted to foreclose on the land and sell it at auction, but the state tax commissioner upheld the nonprofit’s right to a tax exemption on the property earlier this year. In a letter to the state tax commissioner, the county assessor argued that with “their primary use being that of an office complex for themselves and residential facilities for their staff, we determine this land has no charitable use.”

According to Dan Wheeler, the CVI’s construction manager, the portion of land that the town is attempting to condemn encompasses the site the institute selected to build an access road onto the property. Condemning that land would effectively prevent the use of about 2,000 acres the institute owns on the south side of the Blackwater River, Wheeler said.

The institute originally planned to build a headquarters facility on the property, costing as much as $30 million, but because of disputes with the town, it moved its plans to a second parcel of land on the other side of the river, Wheeler said.

The institute then reached an agreement to sell 100 acres on the south side of the river to the National Youth Science Foundation, another nonprofit that has received Mollohan-sponsored earmarks. The foundation, which runs a national summer science camp for top high school students, has filed a motion to intervene as an aggrieved party in the case, claiming that the only access to the land it is buying is across the section that the town wants to condemn.

The condemnation case was initially filed in 2005, but Wheeler said it became more heated when NOAA began installing scientific equipment on the site last fall to monitor mercury levels in the air. Jana Goldman, a NOAA spokeswoman, said the monitoring station, which is about the size of a truck trailer with a small tower on top, is part of a national monitoring network NOAA is creating at five sites around the country. When all of the equipment is installed at the CVI site, the total cost will be about $250,000, she said.

Mollohan’s letter to Commerce suggests that “if the town is successful in the pending condemnation action, there would be nothing to prevent it from condemning additional parcels of land that CVI acquired using NOAA funding … and thereby further harm — if not undermine entirely — this important NOAA-funded project.”

Ronald Pearson, vice chairman of the board of trustees of the NYSF, said his group plans to buy about 100 acres to build a science education center on the site, including a dormitory for students.

“Tucker County has a legitimate concern they raise about the tax base,” Pearson said, but he added that groups like his can be a “win-win” for the town. The NYSF has proposed paying the town a fee in lieu of taxes for services, and construction of the foundation facility could offer an opportunity to upgrade the city’s water system structures as well, he said. “One of the reasons that we intervened is to try to bring solutions to the table, to try to get the parties to see where their common interests are.”

Mollohan spokesman Gerry Griffith said in an e-mail reply to Roll Call that “CVI’s headquarters campus and the 3,200 acres which were purchased near the town of Davis, West Virginia, with NOAA’s assistance, present nationally significant environmental research and educational opportunities.”

Nevertheless, Griffith said, “The officials of the town of Davis are certainly entitled to raise with CVI any concerns they have about CVI’s plans for their headquarters facility or research work conducted on the property, as well as to pursue those concerns in court. CVI is likewise entitled to defend any court action. But a key point here is that once a court case is underway, it’s important that NOAA consider its own stake in the litigation, and make a decision on whether its interests require that the agency become party to the case or take some other action.”

Griffith also pointed out that “Congressional contacts with Executive agencies on matters such as this are entirely permissible under House ethics rules and standards.”