Congress May Seek Criminal Probe of Altered Earmark
Thursday, April 17, 2008
The Senate moved yesterday toward asking the Justice Department for a criminal investigation of a $10 million legislative earmark whose provisions were mysteriously altered after Congress gave final approval to a huge 2005 highway funding bill.
In what may become the first formal request from Congress for a criminal inquiry into one of its own special projects, top Senate Democrats and Republicans have endorsed taking action in connection with the earmark that Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, inserted into the legislation.
"It's very possible people ought to go to jail," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees highway funding.
Young's staff acknowledged yesterday that aides "corrected" the earmark just before it went to the White House for President Bush's signature, specifying that the money would go to a proposed highway interchange project on Interstate 75 near Naples, Fla. Young says the project was entirely worthy of an earmark and he welcomes any inquiry, a spokeswoman said.
"Congressman Young has always supported and welcomed an open earmark process. If Congress decides to take up the matter of this particular project, there will be no objection from Mr. Young," said Meredith Kenny, his spokeswoman. Young also sponsored a $223 million measure to build the fabled "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, a project that was killed in 2005 after it sparked widespread outrage.
Young's critics suggest that the motive for the I-75 provision was campaign contributions from real estate developers who own 4,000 acres of land near the proposed interchange. In February 2005, developer Daniel Aronoff hosted Young and Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) at a highway safety event at Florida Gulf Coast University, followed by a fundraiser that brought in about $40,000 for Young's campaign.
The developers have been trying for several years to build on the land, whose value would increase if there were a nearby interchange for I-75, which runs east-west between the Naples area and Fort Lauderdale.
Reports about the Aronoff fundraiser for Young in the Naples News prompted inquiries from a local FBI office in 2006.
Local planning officials, who never requested money for the interchange, were outraged to learn after the highway bill became law that they were required to spend $10 million on a project they did not want. The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the recipient of the money, has rejected it three times in the past year.
Earmarks are requests to fund special projects, usually in a lawmaker's home state or congressional district. They often are used for libraries, sewers and other infrastructure, and every five years a new highway bill brings with it billions of dollars in new earmarks.
The total number and dollar value of earmarks rose sharply in the final six years of Republican rule on Capitol Hill, becoming increasingly controversial as law enforcement authorities pursued several corruption cases centered on their use. Even as their numbers shrank last year, congressional earmarks accounted for $18 billion in the federal budget.
But lawmakers and aides on both sides of the aisle could not recall Congress ever asking for a criminal investigation of an earmark.