WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday took the rare move of asking the Justice Department to investigate an Alaska congressman's earmark for a Florida highway project, a matter that threatens to become the "bridge to nowhere" of 2008 and could endanger the veteran Rep. Don Young's political future.
The Senate's 64-28 vote calls on the Justice Department to look into the circumstances surrounding the 2005 earmark, which shifted $10 million from a project to widen Interstate 75 in southwest Florida to a study of a Coconut Road interchange that promised to benefit one of Young's campaign donors.
The attention to a 2005 earmark by an Alaska congressman for a Florida road has, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. put it, spotlighted "the corruption that permeated the Congress in recent years."
"If violations of federal criminal law occurred, it is the province of the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate and prosecute them," Reid said.
The earmark was in the 2005 highway bill that Young oversaw as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. An aide made the change to the legislation after the House and Senate already had voted on the bill, a procedural move that has angered other members of Congress and that, ultimately, led to Thursday's call for an investigation.
But Young has long maintained that the community asked for the change and that when one of his staffers made it during the bill enrollment process, they considered it a technical fix that mirrored what people in Florida wanted.
Thursday's vote was actually an amendment to a bill that corrects a number of technical problems in the 2005 bill — including the Coconut Road earmark.
Young, a Republican who took office in 1973, would not comment Thursday, but he has said for the past week that he welcomes the scrutiny.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the matter should be referred to the House ethics committee. The Republican House leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, said he also had no objections to an investigation.
"Mr. Young's office has welcomed any inquiry or examination of the earmark, and I would support that as well," Boehner said. "I think it's in everyone's interest that we know what happened and did not happen here."
The FBI already has looked into Young's ties to a Florida developer who held a fundraiser for the congressman in 2005 and then landed an earmark in the highway bill when Young chaired the transportation committee.
The FBI has interviewed community activists who said they felt an interchange at Coconut Road and Interstate 75 would allow the development of environmentally sensitive land owned by Daniel Aronoff, the developer.
Justice Department officials would not comment on Thursday's vote.
Both of Alaska's senators voted against the proposal, with Republican Sen. Ted Stevens calling it a "dangerous precedent."
But both he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, did vote for an unsuccessful alternative that was sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Coburn, who opposes earmarks, had asked for a bipartisan House and Senate committee to investigate the earmark, then refer its findings to the proper authorities. Coburn said he feared that the Senate's vote Thursday was unconstitutional.