By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The former Republican congressman chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to direct billions in federal highway spending has been an unapologetic advocate of earmarks, a practice Obama now opposes, and has used his influence to win funding for projects pushed by some of his largest campaign contributors.
Ray LaHood, who represented Illinois in the House for seven terms, sponsored $60 million in earmarks last year, steering at least $9 million in federal money to campaign donors, a Washington Post analysis shows. An opponent of earmark reform efforts in Congress, LaHood ranks roughly among the top 10 percent in the House for sponsoring earmarks in 2008, according to a watchdog group.
LaHood's record poses an important question as hearings begin today that will explore how he would administer part of a $775 billion stimulus package that will be directed to the Transportation Department. LaHood has defended his use of earmarks as a way to direct federal money to decaying communities in his district and insisted there is no connection between his earmarks and projects benefiting campaign donors.
Obama has pledged to resist pressure from local interests and to block unjustified earmarks from inclusion in the stimulus bill. "We're not having earmarks in the recovery package, period," he said Jan. 7.
The stimulus package would include the largest wave of federal transportation spending since the Eisenhower administration launched the creation of the interstate highway system.
Transition spokesman Dan Leistikow credited LaHood for "14 years of honorable and outstanding service as a congressman, fighting on behalf of his constituents and creating jobs for working families."
LaHood, 62, a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee until his retirement last month, declined to comment.
Government watchdog groups say LaHood's selection does not bode well for Obama's pledge to return transparency to government spending. Earmarks are often last-minute insertions in federal spending bills and are not subject to normal reviews.
LaHood also has been criticized for his ties to a longtime Republican state kingmaker in Illinois, William F. Cellini Sr., who was indicted in the "pay-to-play" criminal investigation underway by the office of Northern District U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald. Cellini has denied wrongdoing.
"This guy has history of pork barrel spending and lot of a questionable spending linked to his friends. He's going to be in charge of funneling hundreds of billions of dollars into local projects . . . and he's not going to be suddenly changing his stripes tomorrow," said Leslie Paige of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.
LaHood's biggest campaign donor is Peoria's largest corporation: Caterpillar. The company and its workers have donated more than $190,000 to LaHood since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, LaHood secured $7.8 million to help the company and its offshoots develop technologies for potential future military contracts.
Last year, he also pushed for $333,000 to construct the new Lakeview Museum in Peoria, part of a project that will include a Caterpillar-financed museum focused on the company's history.
LaHood sponsored $1.49 million in earmarks directed to Springfield's Memorial Medical Center to fund the purchase of computer-based simulation technology and other equipment. Memorial and its lobbyist Cassidy and Associates together have given $60,000 to LaHood.
Local road-building companies also have supported LaHood. United Contractors Midwest, led by president James Bruner, is often ranked as his second or third largest donor, and its officials have donated $24,925 to LaHood. Three leading members of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association have given more than $60,000 to LaHood.
Last year, he proposed $2 million in road-paving projects, including at least one $245,000 check that the recipient never sought. The money would help an Illinois cemetery resurface its roadways.
"Congressman LaHood's staff called me, saying, 'We know your roads are in bad condition. What can we do?' said LuAnn Johnson, executive director of the Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. "We were thrilled for the chance for federal dollars."
LaHood's road-building earmarks have highlighted his relationship with Cellini, head of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association and other businesses. Cellini was indicted in October on charges of shaking down government vendors to raise money for Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Cellini has longtime ties to Blagojevich and is accused in a separate civil lawsuit of striking a deal with the governor to raise money for him in exchange for control over key state jobs.
In a Peoria newspaper article last year that celebrated his career, mayors cheered LaHood's earmarks, with one noting that "Ray's fingerprints are on everything around here." LaHood defended using his sway to fund good, local ideas.
"The reason I went on the Appropriations Committee, the reason other people go on the Appropriations Committee, is they know that it puts them in a position to know where the money is at, to know the people who are doling out the money and to be in the room when the money is being doled out," he said.
Some beneficiaries are little known outside the district. LaHood sponsored more than $1 million in earmarks to build a Peoria/NEXT incubator, a technology development project. A Morton, Ill.-based firm, Otto Baum, was chosen in 2006 to build part of the center. The firm wrote LaHood a $2,300 campaign check last year.
LaHood also has advocated for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, which relied upon $40 million in federal funds. He sponsored a $5 million earmark in 2004 to finish the building.
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.