The Senate moved yesterday toward asking the Justice Department for a criminal investigation of a $10 million legislative earmark whose provisions were mysteriously altered after Congress gave final approval to a huge 2005 highway funding bill.Politicians from both major parties have been playing the earmark game for far too long. This case makes me wonder how many more politicians pulled the same "correction" that Young did, but didn't raise red flags because local officials were happy to get the money.
In what may become the first formal request from Congress for a criminal inquiry into one of its own special projects, top Senate Democrats and Republicans have endorsed taking action in connection with the earmark that Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, inserted into the legislation.
"It's very possible people ought to go to jail," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees highway funding.
Young's staff acknowledged yesterday that aides "corrected" the earmark just before it went to the White House for President Bush's signature, specifying that the money would go to a proposed highway interchange project on Interstate 75 near Naples, Fla. Young says the project was entirely worthy of an earmark and he welcomes any inquiry, a spokeswoman said. [...]
Young's critics suggest that the motive for the I-75 provision was campaign contributions from real estate developers who own 4,000 acres of land near the proposed interchange. In February 2005, developer Daniel Aronoff hosted Young and Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) at a highway safety event at Florida Gulf Coast University, followed by a fundraiser that brought in about $40,000 for Young's campaign.
The developers have been trying for several years to build on the land, whose value would increase if there were a nearby interchange for I-75, which runs east-west between the Naples area and Fort Lauderdale.
Reports about the Aronoff fundraiser for Young in the Naples News prompted inquiries from a local FBI office in 2006.
Local planning officials, who never requested money for the interchange, were outraged to learn after the highway bill became law that they were required to spend $10 million on a project they did not want. The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the recipient of the money, has rejected it three times in the past year.
If this turns out to be a criminal offense, then I hope that they throw the book at Young and make an example of him. The reason I say "if this turns out to be a criminal offense" is because, if there is no law or rule against doing what Young did, then there may not be any case against him. And if there is no case against him, then the law or rule really should be created that keeps politicians from adding earmarks (or any other changes, for that matter) to legislation after it has received final Congressional approval.
I also hope that this gets some people digging through the approved versions of spending bills and comparing them to the versions that were signed into law. If other politicians pulled the same sort of trick that Young appears to have pulled, then they need to be called out and looked into as well.
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