Senator seeks investigation into highway-bill earmark

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 18, 2007 


Alaska Congressman Don Young


WASHINGTON — An Oklahoma senator who has been a strident critic of the "earmark favor factory" has asked for an investigation into how money was earmarked for a study of a highway interchange next to environmentally sensitive land in Florida.

The $10 million earmark was slipped into the 2005 highway spending bill, a $286.4 billion behemoth overseen by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, then chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has asked for an investigative panel with subpoena power to determine who placed the so-called Coconut Road study into the highway bill.

"Those who perverted and distorted the explicit will of the U.S. Congress must also be held to account," Coburn said in his letter. "A full investigation into this matter is necessary to ensure that this does not happen again in the future."

The earmark first drew the attention of Florida road planners when they learned they'd received $10 million for the study even though it wasn't one of their transportation priorities. They'd originally sought an earmark that would direct $10 million for the widening of Interstate 75 in Lee County, Fla.

An enrollment clerk changed language in the earmark after Congress had already voted on it, erasing I-75 and adding the words "Coconut Road" as it was being cleaned up to be sent to President Bush for signing.

That fact, uncovered by a community activist in Florida nearly two years after the highway bill was signed into law, has infuriated Coburn and congressional watchdogs, who see it as a breach of the public's trust in the legislative process.

"For Dr. Coburn it's not necessarily about Coconut Road," said his spokesman, John Hart. "What happened was an assault against constitutional authority. It begs the question: Is there a secretive branch of government that can alter bills?"

Young has long maintained that the Florida Gulf Coast University asked for the study and that he earmarked the money because residents told him they wanted it in 2005 when he attended one of their community transportation meetings with a local congressman, Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla.

On Tuesday, Young's spokesman Meredith Kenny said only that Young "has consistently welcomed an open earmark process." Kenny pointed to an October article in a Capitol Hill newspaper that placed the blame for the legislative change squarely on Mack.

But many, including the FBI, have questioned the timing of the earmark overseen by Young's committee, one of 6,371 in the highway bill.

The FBI interviewed community activists who said they felt an interchange at Coconut Road would clear for development environmentally sensitive land owned by Daniel Aronoff, a longtime family friend of Young who organized a March 2005 fundraiser in Bonita Springs, Fla., for the congressman.

In the two weeks before and after the Coconut Road earmark was inserted in the spending bill, Young's campaign and political action committee collected contributions from Aronoff, as well as from Aronoff's lobbyist and a number of other Florida business executives. The Florida donations, mainly from real estate interests, totaled more than $40,000.

A McClatchy investigation in November documented Young's extensive travels as chairman of the transportation committee. Although Young amassed $6.5 million in political contributions from 2001 to 2005, he had weak political opposition in his House race and tapped his campaign funds to travel the country to meet with developers and view their proposed highway projects.

Mack's office didn't return phone calls, but the Florida Republican has said that he will work to get the money shifted from the Coconut Road study and back toward the original widening project sought by the area's transportation planners.

Until there's at least the promise of an investigation into who was responsible for the earmark change, Hart said that Coburn will continue his hold on what's known as a "glitch bill" — legislation that fixes technical problems in the 2005 highway bill.

Individual U.S. senators have the power to hold up legislation if they don't want to see it move forward. But the glitch bill has already passed the House of Representatives, and many senators will want to see it move forward in the Senate because they have local projects dependent on money in the legislation. One of the fixes in it shifts money back to the I-75 widening project — and away from the Coconut Road study.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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