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Congress May Seek Criminal Probe of Altered Earmark

The staff of Rep. Don Young (R) said aides changed the earmark.
The staff of Rep. Don Young (R) said aides changed the earmark. (Al Grillo - AP)
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The version of the highway bill approved by the House and Senate in the summer of 2005 mentioned only "widening and improvements" for I-75 in Collier and Lee counties in South Florida. After final passage of the measure, but before it was sent to the White House, that line item was altered to specify that the money would go to "Coconut Rd. Interchange/Lee County."

For months, no lawmaker stepped forward to say who had made the change.

"Somewhere along the way, something changed. Nobody knows for sure who did what," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who fought Young's bridge project three years ago, said during yesterday's debate.

Young's office accepted responsibility yesterday for the change, insisting that campaign contributions were not the motive. Rather, presentations made by Florida Gulf Coast University officials and the developers proved the case for the project, aides said.

Kenny, Young's spokeswoman, said the lawmaker always intended for the earmark to designate money to the interchange project, not generic highway improvements. So committee aides altered the bill to reflect that after the House and Senate had approved it.

"There was an error in the bill and so it was corrected," she said.

Young, who is facing his most difficult reelection campaign since he first won office in 1972, has seen his name surface in connection with other investigations. One of his former aides at the transportation committee has pleaded guilty to accepting gifts from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And a former Alaska energy services corporate executive, who pleaded guilty last year to bribery, testified in criminal trials that part of his job was to hold annual fundraisers for Young.

Mack has disavowed any association with the earmark request, and the Florida congressional delegation has worked to place language in "technical corrections" to the highway bill that would allow Lee County to spend the $10 million on general improvements.

The corrections bill is moving through the Senate this week, but Coburn said that is not enough. He is asking for a special House-Senate task force to investigate the origin of the earmark and how it was altered without congressional approval, which could lead to a criminal referral to the Justice Department.

"We ought to be able to investigate ourselves," he said.

However, Boxer and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have suggested that constitutional separation-of-powers issues would make it difficult for a Senate investigation of an action in the House. Instead, they have pushed for a resolution asking the Justice Department to investigate.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

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