Senate seeks investigation into Florida earmark

WASHINGTON — If federal investigators haven't already gotten the message, the Senate made it clear Wednesday: It wants an inquiry into Rep. Don Young's 2005 earmark for the now-infamous Coconut Road interchange in southwest Florida.

Deeming it a "devious" change that was made after the House of Representatives and the Senate both passed the multiyear highway-funding bill, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called for the Justice Department to investigate the earmark. Boxer's proposal is an alternative to one offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who wants a bipartisan panel of House and Senate members who have subpoena power to investigate.

An internal congressional investigation doesn't have the threat of jail time, Boxer said Wednesday on the Senate floor, but a federal criminal investigation does.

"I'm so angry about this; I'm so upset about this. I'm sick about this," Boxer said. "I think it's very possible people ought to go to jail here. ... If there was a crime, then the person ought to go to jail or the people ought to go to jail. Let's get right to the point instead of setting up a political committee."

But the Senate failed to come to an agreement on her proposal or Coburn's, and it adjourned Wednesday night without taking a vote on them. Both proposals were amendments to a relatively non-controversial technical corrections bill, which fixes some glitches with the original 2005 highway legislation that Young ushered through the House.

Regardless, federal investigators already have been looking into the circumstances surrounding the earmark and its timing — if not who set aside $10 million for a study of the Coconut Road interchange.

The FBI already has inquired about 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 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Young, a Republican from Alaska who took office in 1973, has long maintained that the community asked for the money to go to the interchange study. The $10 million earmark, originally slated for the widening of Interstate 75, was shifted toward a study of an interchange instead.

The FBI has interviewed community activists who said they felt an interchange at Coconut Road and I-75 would allow the development of environmentally sensitive land owned by Daniel Aronoff, the developer.

The Justice Department wouldn't comment Wednesday.

Young said Wednesday that he has nothing to hide and welcomes any inquiry by his congressional peers. He has "always supported and welcomed an open earmark process," said spokeswoman Meredith Kenny. "If Congress decides to take up the matter of this particular project, there will be no objection from Mr. Young."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that he supports a federal inquiry; several high-profile senators of both parties have signed on to Coburn's amendment.

They include two of the presidential candidates: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Coburn also has the support of both Florida senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson.

Coburn said Wednesday that an internal process would allow Congress to police its own ranks and assure Americans that both the House and the Senate are concerned about the integrity of the legislative process.

"The one thing we do know is that the American people expect the process to be one that is both open, one that is accurate, and when the president gets the bill, it truly represents what the Congress actually intended," Coburn said.

Young's fellow Alaskan, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, also has indicated that he would vote for Coburn's proposal. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would consider it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been silent on the matter. A spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said that the GOP is "focused on forcing the House Democratic leaders to join us in an earmark moratorium — an effort which will make a real difference in reforming how we spend taxpayer dollars."

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