WASHINGTON -- If federal investigators haven't already gotten the message, the U.S. Senate made it clear Wednesday: They want 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.
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. "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 adjourned Wednesday night without voting on them. Both proposals were amendments to a bill that would fix some glitches with the original 2005 highway legislation that Young, R-Alaska, ushered through the House.
Federal investigators have already been looking into the earmark and its timing -- if not who actually set aside $10 million in money for a study of the Coconut Road interchange after the money had won final passage in both the House and Senate for widening Interstate 75.
The FBI has already 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 has long maintained that the community asked for the money to go to the interchange study.
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 would not 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.
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 let Congress police its own ranks and assure Americans that both the House and the Senate are concerned about the integrity of the legislative process.
Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens has indicated he would vote for Coburn's proposal. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would consider it.
"The U.S. House of Representatives has a well-defined ethics process and investigatory powers, as does the Senate," Murkowski said. "I respect those processes. However, Congressman Young has already stated he would welcome any review of the Florida highway interchange earmark and I support his desire to have a fair review of this matter."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been silent on the matter, however. A spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-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."
The legislation the Senate is considering actually would let Florida transportation planners use the Coconut Road money for road widening instead of the interchange study.
Find Erika Bolstad online at adn.com/contact/ebolstad or call her in Washington, D.C., at 202-383-6104.