Young defends secret highway earmark

WASHINGTON — Rep. Don Young for the first time offered a public explanation Wednesday for a secret transportation earmark that so angered fellow lawmakers that they called on the Justice Department to investigate it.

Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, the Alaska Republican acknowledged that he'd "been the subject of much innuendo" for the 2005 earmark, which shifted $10 million from a road-widening project in southwest Florida to a study of an interstate interchange that promised to benefit one of Young's campaign donors.

Young said that the earmark, part of a $286.4 billion highway bill he oversaw as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was never designed to benefit anyone in particular. The accusations have "little if any connection with what actually occurred," Young said in an 11-minute speech.

The House voted 358-51 Wednesday to join a Senate call for a Justice Department investigation into the earmark. The request is attached to a bill that makes technical fixes to glitches in Young's original 2005 highway spending plan. The bill also allows Florida to spend the $10 million on interstate road widening and not the Coconut Road interchange study.

Even as Young defended the earmark, he didn't offer an explanation for how it was inserted into the highway spending bill after the House and Senate both had voted on it. As chairman, Young said, he had no control over the bill enrollment process.

Young also repeated what he's said about the earmark before: that it was sought in particular by Florida Gulf Coast University, which asked for the interchange study for hurricane evacuation needs when Young attended a community meeting there in 2005.

"After all the accusations, rumors about this bill, I hope this sets the record straight," Young said. "This project was asked for by the community. It was supported by the congressman for that district."

But many in the community were baffled by the request, and a local transportation planning board didn't want the money and voted last year to send it back to Washington.

The FBI has interviewed community activists who said they felt an interchange at Coconut Road and Interstate 75 in Lee County, Fla., would allow the development of environmentally sensitive land owned by developer Daniel Aronoff, a Young contributor.

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