Report depicts Nelson's tree talk

Did the senator just need a friend to help condo-shop, or did he ask the park service for a tree-cutting favor?

Published May 24, 2006

WASHINGTON - A high-level condo, high-level trees and help from a high-level National Park Service official have made for some high-level embarrassment for Florida's senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson.

A report by the Interior Department's inspector general says Nelson went "condo shopping" with a high-ranking park service official and asked an unnamed park ranger about cutting some trees along the George Washington Parkway, which runs in front of a condominium he was considering buying.

Nelson, who is seeking re-election, is a favorite among environmental groups. A spokesman for the senator said he never asked about cutting trees.

Rather, Nelson had sought the advice of National Park Service director Fran Mainella, the former Florida parks director and an old friend, as he was trying to decide between a fourth-floor unit and a pricier fifth-floor unit at a complex across the Potomac River in Rosslyn, Va.

Mainella sent P. Daniel Smith, her special assistant who handled queries from members of Congress and other VIPs, to help.

Trees blocked the view from the fourth-floor unit of Memorial Overlook condominiums, and Nelson didn't want to buy the fifth-floor unit - which was about $400,000 more - if the trees would keep growing and eventually obscure the fifth-floor view of the Iwo Jima Memorial as well, Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

Told the trees indeed would grow more, Nelson opted for the fourth-floor unit, which he bought for $1.2-million.

"When somebody's buying a place and they're putting their savings into it, it's a substantial investment and they do their due diligence, and that's all he was doing in this case," McLaughlin said. "He wasn't seeking special favors from a government agency because he was a senator.

"He called Fran because he knows her and the government was the owner of the property."

The inspector general's report says that, "According to the park ranger, (Nelson) was condo shopping with Smith's assistance.

"The park ranger commented that the member of Congress spoke to him regarding trees along the GW Parkway that could possibly block a view from a condo he was considering purchasing. The park ranger said the member of Congress asked if the trees could be cut."

The anecdote was included in an 18-page report critical of Smith for improperly allowing Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins football team, to cut down 130 trees that were obscuring the view of the Potomac River from his home. The trees were on park service land.

The Nelson incident was offered as one of two other examples where Smith got involved in matters involving members of Congress or private citizens where a "park ranger felt that Smith's personal attention and high level involvement was 'odd.' "

McLaughlin said he believes the park ranger must have misunderstood what Nelson wanted. "Nelson did not ask that the trees be cut, and they're still standing there today, and he's living on the fourth floor, enjoying the view of the trees."

Smith is now superintendent of the Colonial National Historic Park in Virginia. He declined to comment Tuesday.