Watchdog group urges probe of highway earmark linked to Young

WASHINGTON — A watchdog group asked the House ethics committee on Wednesday to investigate how a $10 million earmark for a Florida highway interchange, which was backed by Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, was inserted into a bill that already had won final congressional approval.

In a letter to the committee's leaders, Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, called "the actions taken by Young's staff ... an apparent violation" of the Constitution that undermined the integrity of the House of Representatives.

"In the absence of an accounting and explanation, the public is left to assume the worst, further degrading the already low public regard for Congress," Alexander wrote the committee chairwoman, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, and ranking Republican, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington. The committee is scheduled to meet on Friday.

McClatchy Newspapers reported recently that the FBI is investigating the 2005 earmark for a $10 million study of a proposed Coconut Road interchange near Bonita Springs, Fla., as part of an inquiry into whether Young traded his influence as chairman of the House Transportation Committee for campaign contributions or other favors.

On Feb. 19, 2005, three weeks before the House passed a massive, six-year transportation bill, Young visited the site of the proposed interchange along Interstate 75, which was sought by real estate developer Daniel Aronoff. Young also attended a political fundraiser, netting more than $40,000 in donations from builders and developers, including Aronoff, whose land would soar in value if linked to I-75.

The bill that won final House and Senate passage later that summer earmarked $10 million for "widening and improvements for I-75" in Collier and Lee counties, Fla. But on Aug. 10, the language was altered to read: "Coconut Rd. Interchange I-75/Lee County."

Alexander noted in her letter that the earmark was the only one of 6,371 allocations for congressional pet projects to be substantially changed during the "bill enrollment process," in which the House clerk makes technical corrections.

She said that in 1854, an alleged tiny, but substantive, alteration of a House land grant bill for the Territory of Minnesota after final congressional passage led to an inquiry that concluded that the perpetrator should face "severe censure."

Alexander called on the ethics committee to investigate who substituted the earmark language, who knew of the change and on whose authority it was made.