WASHINGTON—Rep. Don Young, who's made a career out of bringing federal dollars to Alaska, shrugged off reports Thursday that he steered millions of dollars to help a prominent campaign contributor with a Florida road project.
Young's role in the Fort Myers Coconut Road deal two years ago has received growing media scrutiny in recent months as the new Democratic Congress debates earmark reform, an agenda popularized by Alaska's so-called "bridges to nowhere" championed by Young and Sen. Ted Stevens.
Both Republican lawmakers were subjects of national news reports Thursday: Stevens in a Washington Post story on the federal bribery investigation that's enveloped his son, former Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens; Young in a New York Times story describing how he sponsored a $10 million earmark for a road project that helped Florida real estate developer Daniel Aronoff, days after Aronoff helped raise $40,000 for Young's campaign.
The Times reported that it got no response from Young other than an obscene gesture.
In a statement to McClatchy Newspapers, Young didn't dispute any facts in the story, which he called "old news."
But he did dismiss any suggestion of tradeoffs for campaign cash, noting that businesses with interests before the powerful Transportation Committee that he chaired until last year routinely gave its senior members lots of money.
"Every story that comes out is the same, with different players and different projects," he said. "When you are the chairman of the largest committee in the House, and a senior member, and in charge of writing a $290-odd billion bill, it's a guarantee that you are going to be raising more money than other less senior members. . . . It's also a guarantee that there will be a plethora of projects for people to look at and pick apart. This is a recycled story."
Young's defense is similar to one he gave in April to explain campaign contributions from Dennis Troha, a Wisconsin trucking executive who allegedly benefited improperly from road legislation originating in Young's committee.
Young, further dogged by the guilty plea of former aide Mark Zachares in connection with the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal, has retained a Washington law firm to represent his campaign.
Congressional Democrats, who've been dueling with Republicans over ethics reform, were quick to pick up on the revelations in Florida, which were first reported in the Naples (Fla.) Daily News.
"The fact is Don Young forced $10 million on a Florida county—over their objections—to satisfy a major campaign donor," charged Fernando Cuevas, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The only thing `recycled' about Don Young's pay-to-play earmarking scheme is his justification for wasting taxpayer money."
Two years after the fact, it remains unclear whether or not Young's earmark was welcome in Florida.
A spokesman for Rep. Connie Mack, a fellow Republican who represents the Fort Myers district, said his office learned of the Coconut Road earmark only after it was inserted in a major road-spending bill in 2005.
"We never solicited or asked for anybody to support the Coconut Road interchange until after it was enacted," said Jeff Cohen, Mack's chief of staff.
What Mack and other Florida lawmakers did support was federal money to expand Interstate 75 in the fast-growing area of Lee and Collier Counties. As for the Coconut Road interchange—a boon to Aronoff, who reportedly owns some 4,000 acres along the road—Cohen said, "Local leaders ought to make local decisions."
In fact, county officials have voted twice not to use the Coconut Road earmark, although since then Mack, Young and others have urged them to use the cash or risk losing federal money for the county.
Young's involvement in the region appears to have begun in early 2005, when Mack invited him to southwest Florida to see firsthand the region's transportation problems.
"Southwest Florida came together and presented a sound and passionate plea for resources to expand Interstate 75," Mack said in a January 2006 letter to Lee County Commissioner John Albion. Young returned to Washington, Mack continued, with a better understanding of "our region's economy, our quality of life, and the safety and security of Southwest Florida's residents and visitors."
Young also returned with as much as $40,000 in campaign contributions or pledges gathered at a fundraiser at the Hyatt Coconut Point, most of it from Florida developers and builders, including Aronoff.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.