By Jim McElhatton, The Washington Times
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.
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