Senator presses to know who secretly changed highway bill

WASHINGTON — An Oklahoma senator plans next week to propose legislation that would force a special congressional investigation to find out who set aside $10 million in a 2005 transportation bill, after it won final House and Senate passage, to study a possible highway interchange in southwest Florida.

Such an investigation almost certainly would focus on veteran Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, who was chairman of the House Transportation Committee when the unusually late substantive revision was made in the summer of 1995.

Months earlier, Young collected more than $40,000 at a fundraiser in Bonita Springs, Fla., much of it from Florida real estate developer Daniel Aronoff and others seeking the interchange at a nearby site along Interstate 75.

McClatchy reported last year that the FBI was looking at Young's role in redirecting the $10 million as part of an investigation into his earmarking practices and his relationship with an Alaska oil services company.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., vowed in December to block unanimous passage of a routine bill updating the transportation legislation unless the Senate agreed to an investigation. His plan to introduce a formal amendment signals a more determined push.

Coburn's spokesman, John Hart, said that both Florida senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez — are co-sponsoring the amendment, which calls for creation of an eight-member select committee appointed by House and Senate leaders of both parties. The panel would have subpoena powers to compel the appearance of key witnesses and obtain documents, and it would be required to issue an interim report by Aug. 1 and a final report by Oct. 1.

Meredith Kenny, a spokeswoman for Young, said the congressman "has always supported and welcomed an open earmark process."

"If Congress decides to take up the matter of this particular project," she said, "there will be no objection from Mr. Young. "

The amendment, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, would create a select committee appointed by congressional leaders in each chamber to "determine when, how, why and by whom such improper revisions (to the bill) were made."

The Coconut Road episode has upset many members of Congress because the change was made during a period, after final passage, in which only non-substantive, technical corrections were permitted. Until the change, the $10 million had been allotted for widening a portion of I-75.

Hart said Coburn plans to introduce the amendment by Monday and is confident the full Senate will get to vote "on the substance of the provision."

Hart called it "a brazen attack against the integrity of every member of Congress" and "an unprecedented abuse of power" to change the measure between its final passage and the president's desk.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that helped uncover the earmark, praised the amendment.

"This gimmick, this power play to shift the language, had real consequences," he said. "The community down there has been waiting two years to get their $10 million to actually widen I-75 because of this whole long, drawn-out fight over the interchange at Coconut Road."