Senate Seeks Inquiry Into Earmark Change

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

The Senate yesterday requested a federal criminal investigation into changes to a $10 million earmark in 2005, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and top Republicans endorsed an ethics committee investigation of how the language governing the pet project was altered.

On a bipartisan 64 to 28 vote, the Senate approved a resolution asking the Justice Department to look into the circumstances surrounding the $10 million expenditure for a highway interchange in Florida backed by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Lawmakers and aides said they could not recall Congress previously requesting a criminal investigation into an earmark.

Young acknowledged this week that he requested the earmark, and an aide conceded that his staff changed its language after both the House and Senate had voted on a highway funding bill that contained the measure. But Young denied that he pushed the provision as a result of receiving $40,000 in campaign donations from developers who owned 4,000 acres of land next to the proposed interchange on Interstate-75 just east of Naples, Fla.

Young's office said that the earmark authorized money for a legitimate project and that aides corrected the legislation to specify that the money was for the interchange, not the general widening of I-75, as originally worded. Aides said a bipartisan collection of House and Senate staff members agreed to that correction before the highway bill was sent to the White House.

But Democratic and Republican senators this week said no substantive changes should ever be made to a bill after its final passage.

"If these allegations are true, this is one more example of the corruption that permeated the Congress in recent years," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said before yesterday's vote.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee in 2005, said his staff had no knowledge of the changed wording. He said any suggestion that it approved the altered earmark was an effort at "covering yourself."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and 17 other Republicans supported the request for a Justice Department investigation.

A county planning board for the Naples area does not support the proposed interchange and has rejected the $10 million three times. As part of yesterday's action, the Senate would also allow Lee County officials to spend the money on general highway improvements instead of the interchange. That provision is expected to pass the House and be signed by President Bush.

An alternative proposal, that an internal House-Senate task force conduct the investigation, received 49 votes, well short of the 60 it needed.

Pelosi and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also said yesterday they will support an investigation by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is officially known.

"Mr. Young's office has welcomed any inquiry or examination of the earmark, and I would support that as well. I think it's in everyone's interest that we know what happened and did not happen here," Boehner said. But neither Pelosi nor Boehner filed an official complaint.

The Justice Department and House ethics committee declined to comment.

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