Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday said the federal judge whose ruling has delayed construction of the Purple Line has a conflict of interest stemming from his connections to opponents of the light-rail project.
Hogan was holding a press conference at Park Potomac to announce proposed traffic improvements to I-270 when he was asked about the construction of the 16.2-mile light-rail line, on which the state has spent millions on design and engineering work required in advance of construction. The state expected to receive $900 million in federal funds before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon vacated federal approval for the Purple Line project in August as part of an ongoing lawsuit.
Hogan, who discussed the project with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao during a meeting last month, said the $900 million can’t be “shaken loose” because of Leon’s alleged conflicts.
“Secretary Chao can’t do anything about a judge whose wife happens to be involved in an opponent group and who has a conflict of interest who’s making a decision to hold this up,” Hogan said.
Gov. Larry Hogan says today that judge in Purple Line case has a conflict of interest pic.twitter.com/DxGSVaj3Dp
— Andrew Metcalf (@AJwatchMD) April 19, 2017
The light-rail line, which would run from Bethesda to New Carrollton, has long been controversial, generating support from those who tout its anticipated benefits to local communities and opposition from those who cite concerns about environmental impacts and disruption to neighborhoods, primarily along part of its proposed route in Chevy Chase and Bethesda. The project is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed by Purple Line opponents that currently revolves around issues relating to Metro operations. The lawsuit in Leon’s court was brought by Town of Chevy Chase residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.
Leon’s August ruling sided with the plaintiffs, who claimed additional review by the federal and state transit administrations was warranted to determine if the success of the Purple Line would be impacted by Metro’s safety issues and declining ridership. The 16-mile light-rail line would connect to four Metro stations and Metro riders are expected to also ride the line.
The judge has not issued a new ruling in the case since the Federal Transit Administration submitted an analysis in December that concluded Metro’s woes wouldn’t significantly affect Purple Line ridership.
Both the Maryland and federal transit administrations have urged Leon to issue a new ruling by April 28 or at the very least reinstate the federal approval for the project so the state can secure the federal funding.
“But even with federal funding, we can’t move forward because of a judge who lives at a Chevy Chase country club,” Hogan noted.
Leon’s house is actually about 3 miles from Columbia Country Club in the Brookdale neighborhood of Chevy Chase.
Hogan seemed to imply that Leon has an association with the country club in Chevy Chase, which formerly opposed construction of the Purple Line, or with a Purple Line opposition group. Hogan’s office later said in an email that the governor was referring to the fact that the judge lives across the street from Martin Wiegand, who served as the club’s president for two years, and that Leon was an avid golfer.
Columbia Country Club fought for years against the construction of the Purple Line because its proposed route would pass through the club on what is now the Georgetown Branch Trail. The club agreed to drop its opposition to the project in 2013 after reaching an agreement with state officials to shift the path of the tracks 12 feet to the north for 1,700 feet to spare four holes on the club’s golf course and protect clubhouse views.
Christine Leon, the judge’s wife, has been a block captain for Andover Road for the Brookdale Citizens Association since at least 2005, according to documents posted on the associations’ website. The association is part of the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, which testified against the Purple Line in 2008 during a public hearing hosted by the state and submitted written testimony on stationery that noted the group was “representing the Citizens Associations of Brookdale, Chevy Chase Village” and other nearby communities. There’s no evidence that Christine Leon personally lobbied against the project. Attempts to reach her Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Richard Podolske, president of the Brookdale Citizens Association, confirmed Wednesday that Christine Leon was still a block captain with the association. He also said the group was “indirectly” represented by the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights.
A message left with Leon’s office seeking comment about the governor’s statements was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, described Wednesday the governor’s comments as “a pretty bold accusation.”
“He’s a federal judge and we have every faith in the judicial system,” Bhatt said.
With reporting by Joseph Zimmermann