How a New York developer curried favors from Alaska congressman

Mall developer Robert Congel (foreground) and Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll.
Mall developer Robert Congel (foreground) and Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll. Dennis Nett / Syracuse Post-Standard

WASHINGTON — New York mall developer Bob Congel knows well how to maneuver in the political world.

In 1985, he, his partners and their families funneled $776,967 into a city council election in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to candidates who favored his proposed shopping mall, swamping the opposition, a New York Commission on Government Integrity found. The panel later reported that Congel’s Pyramid Management Co. may have broken state election laws in clearing the way to build a 1.1 million-square-foot shopping center.

A generation later, Congel had a far bigger vision when he forged a relationship with Alaska Congressman Don Young, then the powerful chairman of the House committee on transportation.

Congel wanted to build a glittering, $2.2 billion shopping and entertainment complex to be known as Destiny USA, which would be North America’s biggest mall. Beginning in 2003, campaign finance reports show, he courted the man who controlled the federal transportation purse strings, flying Young at least three times aboard Cessna Citation X jets to Syracuse, N.Y., where Congel likes to wine and dine politicians.

Not far from there, Young, who's such an avid hunter that his House of Representatives office is adorned with a bear skin and other mounted prey, got a taste of ``Savannah Dhu,’’ Congel’s 5,000-acre private nature preserve. The reforested spread features a conference center, an extravagant nine-bedroom lodge and a hunting and fishing haven that its Web site touts as ``an outdoorsman’s paradise.’’

One local resident who has visited the preserve but who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating Congel said that a guest who arrives in a business suit could descend to the lodge’s basement, which is filled with sportsmen’s gear, and emerge ``looking as if he were outfitted by Cabela’s.’’ Gourmet chefs prepare the boar, elk, deer, fish and migrating waterfowl taken on the preserve, which ironically abuts the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.

Young was among at least a dozen members of Congress whom Congel hosted at Savannah Dhu.

Young and Congel declined to respond to written questions about their relationship or about Young’s stay at the nature preserve.

In late 2003, Congel held fundraisers for Young and at least four other transportation committee members and donated to a sixth member, since-retired New York GOP Congressman Sherwood Boehlert. Congel also channeled upward of $100,000 to New York’s two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, both in position to secure earmarks for state projects.

Boehlert, who recalled spending a night at Savannah Dhu before a speaking engagement, said Congel is ``doing what just about everybody else who’s in the business world and wants to accomplish something does. They’re looking for a way to accomplish the most with the least. They’re looking for every bit of governmental assistance they can get.’’

Young netted at least $33,000 from Congel, his family members, employees and business associates, much of it at a November 2003 Savannah Dhu fundraiser. Young also got $7,645 from Congel’s Green Worlds Fund PAC, apparently so named because Congel is financing solar panels and other forms of renewable energy at his Syracuse mall with low-interest ``Green Bonds’’ arranged by friends in Congress.

In 2005, Young helped set up a congressional briefing in which Congel and his team pitched digital construction technology for use in rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Spurred by Republican Rep. James Walsh, who represents the Syracuse area, Young approved $5 million in the highway bill for Destiny USA to develop the digital technology further and $5 million more to redesign Interstates 81 and 690, which pass near the Destiny site.

Congel had his eye on bigger bucks: designation by Congress as a ``Project of National and Regional Significance,’’ which would have locked up tens of millions of dollars. Despite support from Walsh and New York GOP Rep. Tom Reynolds, however, Destiny USA wasn't picked.

Although last year’s election relegated Young to a lower profile in the Republican minority, Congel hasn’t forgotten him. Young’s campaign manager, Steve Dougherty, said Congel plans to host a fundraiser for Young sometime in November.

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