Follow the money

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Ah, politicians and their quasi-legal payola—it’s a love story as old as time. In the good ol’ days, the transfer of cash from businessman to elected official was a relatively straightforward affair, usually involving a fat envelope and a fine Cuban cigar. But as the glory days of William “Boss” Tweed’s Tammany Hall slowly gave way to our current semi-transparent campaign finance system, politicians have been forced to find more complex and time-consuming ways to fill their pockets.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor’s Political Action Committee has received more than a few campaign dollars from Bank of New York Mellon. Now, his wife is chairwoman of Virginia Retirement System’s board—which pays $4.5 million in management fees to Mellon.

Needless to say, this ongoing quest for campaign cash requires a finely tuned sense of boundaries. Even in a post-Citizens United world, in which the Supreme Court basically ruled that corporations can shower unlimited donations on a candidate (as long as the candidate doesn’t ask for or receive the money directly), there are still certain lines that a greedy pol can’t cross.

The brightest and most obvious of these lines is the blatant quid pro quo, in which a lawmaker receives (or demands) payments from an entity, and then immediately turns around and rewards said entity with taxpayer-funded favors. Such was the case with Republican Del. Phil Hamilton, who steered a half-million government dollars to Old Dominion University in return for a $40,000-a-year job, and was subsequently sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in the hoosegow for bribery and extortion.

But rarely are cases as brazenly clear-cut as Hamilton’s criminal malfeasance. More often than not, corporate cash is funneled to sympathetic legislators in ways that may seem unsavory, but remain perfectly legal. A particularly glaring recent example of this, as reported by the Washington Post, involves U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, Bank of New York Mellon, the Virginia Retirement System (VRS, which manages all of the commonwealth’s public pension monies), and Cantor’s wife, Diana.

Mellon, which is paid a total of $4.5 million a year in management fees by VRS, is currently being sued by Virginia’s combative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has accused the bank of skimming $40 million in profits from a number of Virginia’s public pension funds. This turns a rather embarrassing spotlight on Cantor, who has long accepted money from Mellon.

What’s worse, Mellon’s contributions, which were once rather paltry (a grand total of $2,500 for all of 2008 and 2009), skyrocketed starting in May 2010, when the bank began giving the maximum allowed by law to both Cantor’s reelection fund and his Political Action Committee, Every Republican is Crucial. (ERIC PAC—get it?)

So, what changed? Well, in April 2010, Governor Bob McDonnell appointed Diana Cantor to the VRS board; two months later, she became its chairwoman. Now, you can’t really fault McDonnell for the appointment, as Diana Cantor was eminently qualified for the position, having previously been a VP at Goldman, Sachs & Co. But the sudden, shameless deluge of cash from Mellon’s money spigot into Cantor’s campaign coffers is the kind of thing that can make an already disillusioned voter weep in despair.

The only good thing about any of this, from our perspective, is that it finally pits the Cooch, Virginia’s most powerful law enforcement officer, against Eric the Chin, our most powerful Congress critter. It’s kind of like Al Pacino versus Robert De Niro in Heat, only with less method acting, and way more sanctimonious press conferences.

To your corners, gentlemen—and may the best man win!

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Follow the money

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Wendell Wood is a shrewd businessman. When I said this to him he blanched. Shrewd has negative connotations, as in the Merchant of Venice pound-of-flesh sense, but I didn’t mean it that way.

Wood was 12 years old when his dad died. He says his father owned country stores all around the area, in Earlysville and Shadwell. According to myth (and there is a lot of it), his dad told him to buy corners. “Buy corners,” he said. Wendell did him one better. He bought the sides of the road.

Wood is a self-made man. When he was 32 he started his own bank, Albemarle Bank & Trust. “I made myself chairman and president,” he said. He bought his first land in 1960 and fell hard. “I love land,” he tells me. “Some people like to drink,” he says. “I like to buy land.”

“You’re a landaholic,” I reply. “I’m a landoholic,” he says. He seems to like the term.

A few nights later he repeats the phrase again. We were standing outside Agnor Hurt Elementary School where I had shown up for a Places29 workshop and sat down at a round table near the back. The room was filled with mostly older people and I didn’t think any thing of the elderly gentleman to my right until I noticed that he was directing the critique of the presentation. “How’s the county gonna pay for this,” the man posed. “They don’t have the money to pay for the infrastructure.” Everyone else at the table nodded.

I leaned forward to look. His name tag read “Wendell Wood.” I had talked to him on the phone a couple times but on both occasions he had seemed a bit annoyed with me. Here he was in the flesh.

I introduced myself and after the session ended I corralled him. “Can I take you over to this map,” I pleaded and he followed.

WW is a hated man. One commissioner told me that it was politically perilous to vote for NGIC and the accompanying growth expansion because the people he represents hate the developer. Sally Thomas represents the Samuel Miller District (the Ivy, East Ivy, Red Hill, and Country Green precincts) and she is clearly his foible. He obviously regards her as such. If her name comes up he foams. Even if her name doesn’t come up he usually targets her for his vehemence. “She told NGIC, ‘I don’t want you here,’” he told me on multiple occasions. “Ask her,” he demanded. He had witnesses, he said.

Most of the time, Wendell is focused on land. He is a land junkie. Since 1960, he has steadily bought property all around the area—thousands of acres—and owns literally all the land on both sides of Route 29N, from the river past the airport. He sold to Sam’s Club. He developed the land on the other side. He built the bridge that crosses over the Rivanna. He is now set to build a second bridge, this one to connect Berkmar Drive to the north. In gratitude, the county is moving the boundary lines—à la NGIC—so that the accompanying land can be developed. 

Wood is often described as a “landbaron.” It’s as apt a term as a broad generalization can be. Think “Deadwood’”s George Hearst who tried to buy up much of the West. Both had no express ill intentions. They were both pragmatic. They saw something that would turn a profit.

Wood differs in that he is perhaps more pragmatic. There is no gold rush to pursue. He has systematically purchased acre after acre over four decades and has sat on them until they matured. In 1991, he paid S.W. Heischman $5 million for 15 parcels in the proximity of Route 29. That averages to around $5,347 per acre. Six years later, he sold nearly 29 acres of it to the U.S.A. for $1 million—roughly $35,000 per acre. By 2006, he sold another 47 acres—again to the U.S.A.—for $7 million at what he claimed to be less than half the value. Which still adds up to $150,000 an acre!

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