WASHINGTON — A Justice Department corruption task force is investigating whether Alaska Congressman Don Young took campaign cash in return for securing $10 million for construction of a proposed Florida highway ramp that would give a windfall to a local real estate developer, a source familiar with the inquiry said Friday.
The controversial funding, which was to pay for a study of the potential highway interchange abutting environmentally sensitive land, was slipped into a massive 2005 Transportation Department bill, congressional aides say.
It is among a number of congressional ``earmarks’’ for specific pet projects drawing scrutiny from the Justice Department and an FBI team investigating alleged influence peddling on Capitol Hill, said the source, who insisted upon anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. As the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2000 to 2006, Young added earmarks worth tens of millions of dollars to transportation spending bills.
Investigators’ interest in the Florida earmark stems in part from its timing. In the two weeks before and after the earmark was inserted in the spending bill, Young’s campaign and political action committee collected contributions from the Florida developer, Daniel Aronoff, and Aronoff's lobbyist as well as a number of other Florida business executives. The Florida donations, mainly from real estate interests, totaled more than $40,000.
Meantime, transportation planners in Lee County, the Gulf Coast community where the interchange would be located, voted Friday to ask Congress to let them use the money instead to widen Interstate Highway 75. They said they had never asked for the interchange money.
It appeared until now that an FBI investigation of Young was focused largely on his relationship with Veco Corp., an Alaska oil services company whose executives also have donated heavily to his campaign committees.
A former aide to Young on the transportation committee, Mark Zachares, pleaded guilty last spring to conspiring with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to buy influence in Washington.
As part of his plea agreement, Zachares admitted helping Abramoff in 2004 to win support for a separate highway project to benefit an unidentified businessman. He now is cooperating with investigators.
Proving that members of Congress traded legislative actions for campaign donations has long been a tall order for federal prosecutors, and it was not clear whether investigators have established any such link in the Florida episode.
Neither Young, an 18-term House member, nor his criminal defense lawyers responded to requests for comment Friday.
But the veteran congressman has always maintained that he earmarked the money for the Coconut Road interchange near Fort Myers, Fla., because residents told him they wanted it in 2005 when he attended one of their community transportation meetings.
Young was approached by leaders at Florida Gulf Coast University, which wanted the interchange for better access, said Young’s chief of staff, Mike Anderson. School officials also wanted it to serve as a demonstration project for a sophisticated transportation hub that could be monitored with cameras during hurricane evacuations.
“It’s captured in three words: Hurricane evacuation route,” Anderson said.
But if the community doesn’t want it, Anderson said, Young believes they’re free to give the money back.
"There’s nothing nefarious here. If they want to return the money back to DOT, they can do that,” Anderson said.
Local transportation planners voted Friday to do just that. They want the money to go toward the overall widening of Interstate 75, not for the specific interchange, said Carla Brooks Johnston, who leads Lee County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. The group, known as an MPO, didn’t ask for the $10 million for the study, and was surprised two years ago to learn that it had come their way.
Many in the community felt it would open up for development environmentally sensitive land owned by Aronoff, a longtime family friend of Young’s who organized a March 2005 fundraiser in Bonita Springs, Fla., for the congressman.
Johnston commissioned a researcher to trace how the appropriation was designated and whether the county could use it for another purpose.
The researcher found that Young or one of his aides 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, Johnston said.
``At a time when the highway needs are growing enormously and our highway funds are shrinking rapidly, people are bothered by this,’’ she said.
Anderson offered no explanation for the late change in the earmark’s language.
The university’s Washington lobbyist is listed as Rick Alcalde, a Young campaign donor and the same lobbyist who worked in Washington on behalf of Aronoff’s firm, the Landon Companies.
Since learning of the inquiry and hiring the law firm of Akin Gump to represent him, Young has returned more than $2,600 in in-kind contributions from the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bonita Springs, which hosted the fundraiser.
In 2005, he reimbursed Corporate Flight, a Michigan firm that flew him to the region that February, for $3,422 in flight costs.
The $286.4 billion transportation bill included $24.2 billion for 6,371 special earmarks, said Keith Ashdown of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. It was “one of the most earmarked bills I’ve ever seen,” Ashdown said. At least $2.5 billion of that money went toward projects in the districts of four top GOP lawmakers at the time, including Young.