WASHINGTON -- For nearly 30 years, Rep. Hal Rogers has used his sway on powerful committees to steer billions in federal funds into a rural stretch of his Kentucky district dubbed "Silicon Holler."
Now, new rules requiring members of Congress to publicize their requests on their Web sites offer -- for the first time -- an early glimpse into exactly which projects the Somerset Republican, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, favors before those multimillion-dollar requests are tucked into the federal spending bills. There are 103 requests totaling $466.6 million on Rogers' 22-page request form, which is buried several pages deep on his Web site and downloaded sideways in an unsearchable format.
Those requests include more than $40 million for programs that Rogers either created directly or are housed in Rogers' hometown of Somerset at the Center for Rural Development, a sprawling, state-of-the-art facility that locals call the "Taj-Ma Hal." The National Institute for Hometown Security, a non-profit organization that Rogers helped create and has few staffers, is slated to net $15 million "to continue to provide leadership in discovering and developing community based critical infrastructure protections solutions."
The Department of Homeland Security has never requested any funding for the National Institute of Hometown Security, though former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge came to Kentucky to announce the non-profit's formation several years ago.
Groups that monitor government transparency and the use of federal funds are especially troubled by the trend of members on the powerful House and Senate appropriations committees -- which are in charge of setting specific money expenditures -- earmarking taxpayer money to fund lawmaker-created non-profit organizations. Rogers and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who like his Kentucky counterpart hails from an economically strapped region struggling to bring in new industry, stand out as prime examples of this practice, said William Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for transparency in government.
"You're using federal money to create organizations that wouldn't exist," Allison said. "They're hiring people -- sometimes bringing in political supporters. Sometimes (those supporters) promote the lawmaker as much as the group, because they're out in the community and people identify the group with the member. It amplifies the member and it raises a lot of questions."
Taxpayer advocacy groups also say such practices are an abuse of power, an example of Rogers using his political clout to channel millions in federal homeland security funds into pet projects for his district.
"When we see a member of Congress using tax dollars to create such non-profit entities, we call it phony philanthropy," said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based group that tracks federal pork. "It's easy to spend someone else's money; it's much harder to spend your own. If you set up a non-profit advocacy and they're advocating a point of view, then every citizen is advocating that view whether they agree with it or not."
One example among Rogers' earmarks is Operation UNITE. Critics say that while the program, which was created by Rogers and is poised to receive roughly $13 million in earmarks to ramp up anti-drug initiatives, has been effective, UNITE focuses too heavily on law enforcement and arrests and doesn't channel enough money into treatment and rehabilitation.
Environmentalists take issue with Rogers' continued push for increased coal-to-liquid fuels research funding, such as his $2 million earmark to the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research. Instead, they say, greater funding should be sought for such alternative fuel sources as solar and wind power. Coal mining companies have donated heavily to the state's congressional delegation, and the mining industry is Rogers' top industry donor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes the influence of money in politics.
Rogers stands behind his earmarks.
"Unelected and uninformed earmark crusaders do not represent the interests of my district," Rogers said. "And I don't know of anyone who has suggested that funding for any of these programs is improper."
President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted the earmark process during the 2008 presidential campaign as an unsavory method of conducting government business.
In an effort to create greater government transparency, House members were instructed to post earmark requests on their Web sites in April. The Senate will follow suit in May.
Lawmakers must publicly disclose the amount requested and the proposed recipient, along with addresses and an explanation of the project. Members also must make a written pledge that neither they nor their spouses will benefit financially from the earmark.
However, such lines are often murky.
Rogers' earmark requests include $6 million to Somerset-based Progeny Systems to develop a biometrics-based submarine access control system, $8 million to the Outdoor Venture Corp., also in Somerset, for tents that can be relocated and reconstructed by two people in 20 minutes, and $16 million to the McKee, Ky.-based Phoenix Products Inc. for aircraft drip pans.
Progeny employees gave more than $13,000 to Rogers through his campaign and his political action committee, HALPAC. Outdoor Venture Corp. president James Egnew and his wife, Azalie, contributed more than $20,000 to Rogers' campaigns; Peggy and Thomas Wilson, owner and manager of Phoenix Products, have given roughly $15,000.
Rogers sees the connection as coincidental. He says he's "never been shy about working to bring jobs to southern and eastern Kentucky" and is merely doing what he was elected to do.
"Our decisions on which projects and programs to sponsor have absolutely nothing to do with campaign contributions, period," Rogers said. "Our screening process is exactly the same for every project request we receive. The companies you mention employ over 200 hard-working citizens in one of the poorest regions of the country and are working on critical programs that ultimately protect our brave men and women in uniform fighting for freedom overseas."
Some of Rogers' earmarks support groups and causes with missions with national impact, such as the $10 million request for the Justice Department's prescription drug monitoring program, which operates in 41 states.
Rogers helped launch the program in 2002 with the help Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and has since worked to secure more than $48 million to develop or enhance prescription drug monitoring. The competitive grant, supported by the Justice Department through its own budget submissions, is known as the Harold Rogers Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
"Even the most biased activist would have to admit that providing funding for organizations that have collectively created over 10,000 jobs, trained over 8,500 hospitality workers, provided over 18,000 individuals with technology training, offered education grants to 1,700 teachers, or helped provide important tools to our rural law enforcement and first responder agencies nationwide is taxpayer money well spent," Rogers said.
Intent is one thing, using political heft to micromanage a region's economic currents at the possible expense of other congressional districts is another, Allison said.
"This is a country of 435 districts, all with their needs. With him sitting on appropriations he has a greater ability to steer these funds," Allison said. "If he is actually helping create the organizations and steer money to them, that's much more problematic. There's not enough distance between the member and the organization that's set up."
McClatchy Newspapers 2009