WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate on Thursday took the unusual step of asking the Justice Department to investigate Rep. Don Young's Coconut Road earmark.
The Senate's 64-28 vote calls on the Justice Department to look into the circumstances surrounding the 2005 earmark, which shifted $10 million from a road widening project in southwest Florida to a study of an interchange that promised to benefit one of Young's campaign donors.
Young has frequently made national news in his 35 years in office, but it is uncommon for any rank-and-file member of the House of Representatives to be the center of attention and discussion in the Senate. The Senate historian's office could recall no example Thursday of the Senate ever asking the Justice Department to look into possible criminal conduct by a House member.
But the 2005 earmark by an Alaska congressman for a southwest Florida road has, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, spotlighted "the corruption that permeated the Congress in recent years."
"If violations of federal criminal law occurred, it is the province of the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate and prosecute them," Reid said on the Senate floor.
Justice Department officials would not comment on Thursday's Senate vote. They also have repeatedly refused to comment on any ongoing investigation in Florida, where FBI agents have interviewed community activists who raised questions about the political connections of the people who benefited from the earmark.
EARMARK CAME AS A SURPRISE
The Coconut Road earmark was in the $286.4 billion highway bill that Young oversaw in 2005 as the influential Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. An aide made the change to the legislation after the House and Senate had already voted on the bill, a secret move that has angered other members of Congress and that, ultimately, led to Thursday's call for an investigation.
Young has said since last summer that the community asked for the change and that when one of his staffers made it during the bill enrollment process, they considered it a technical fix that mirrored what people in Florida wanted. His office wouldn't comment Thursday on the Senate vote, but has said for the past week that Young welcomes scrutiny of how the earmark was changed.
"It's a matter of the process, not the member," Young's spokeswoman, Meredith Kenny, said earlier this week. "None of this could have happened just at the hand of Congressman Young."
Thursday's vote for a Justice Department investigation was actually an amendment to a bill that corrects a number of technical problems in the original 2005 bill -- including reversing Young's Coconut Road earmark.
ROAD PLANNERS RAISE QUESTIONS
The $10 million earmark, originally for the widening of Interstate 75 in Lee County, Fla., 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 Florida developer Daniel Aronoff.
But federal investigators didn't start looking into the matter until local road planners started questioning why they had received an unasked-for earmark to study something that wasn't one of their transportation priorities. They'd originally asked for the $10 million to widen the interstate.
Other community interests were pushing for the interchange, including nearby Florida Gulf Coast University. The school asked for the Coconut Road study when Young attended one of their community transportation meetings with a local congressman, Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla.
Young's chief of staff, Mike Anderson, has said previously that school officials wanted it to serve as a demonstration project for a sophisticated transportation hub that could be monitored with cameras during hurricane evacuations. "It's captured in three words: Hurricane evacuation route," Anderson told McClatchy Newspapers in August.
Yet in the weeks before and after the earmark was inserted in the spending bill, Young's campaign and his political action committee collected contributions from Aronoff, his lobbyist and a number of business interests. Those donations totaled more than $40,000.
Contributors included Rick Alcalde, a Young campaign donor who worked on behalf of Aronoff's real estate firm, the Landon Companies. Alcalde also worked as a lobbyist for Florida Gulf Coast University.
Lobbying disclosure forms show that in 2005, the Landon Companies paid Alcalde $80,000 specifically to lobby on Young's highway bill. In 2006, the university paid him $40,000 to lobby on a transportation appropriations bill.
ALASKA SENATORS VOTE AGAINST
The fundraiser was one of many Young attended nationwide as chairman of the transportation committee, where he was the final say on what highway projects got approved across America.
Eventually, the original earmark was changed, but after the House and Senate had both voted on it. An enrollment clerk, working with staffers on Young's committee, erased "I-75" and added the words "Coconut Road" as the massive spending bill was being cleaned up to be sent to President Bush for signing.
Thursday, support for the Justice Department investigation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., drew an unlikely coalition of Democrats and Republicans, many of whom said they were concerned about the integrity of their legislative process. Twenty of the votes of support came from Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader.
House leaders had a muted response to the Senate vote, but indicated they were concerned about what had happened. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the matter should be taken up by the House ethics committee. The Republican House leader, Rep. John Boehner, said he also had no objections to an investigation.
"Mr. Young's office has welcomed any inquiry or examination of the earmark, and I would support that as well," Boehner said. "I think it's in everyone's interest that we know what happened and did not happen here."
Both of Alaska's senators voted against the Justice Department investigation, with Republican Sen. Ted Stevens calling it a "dangerous precedent." But both he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, did vote for an alternative proposal posed by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Coburn, who opposes earmarks and has been critical of the Alaska delegation, had asked for a bipartisan House and Senate committee to investigate the earmark. It would then refer its findings to the proper authorities. His proposal had 49 supporters, but needed 60 votes for approval.
Later, Coburn said he feared that the Senate's vote Thursday was unconstitutional. Congress can't order a criminal investigation any more than the Justice Department can investigate violations of congressional rules, Coburn said. It violates the Speech and Debate clause of the Constitution, which keeps investigators from using legislative materials as evidence of wrongdoing in criminal investigations.
"Violating congressional rules is not a crime, yet Congress has just given away its right to police itself with this misguided amendment," Coburn said.
His concerns were echoed by congressional budget and ethics watchdog groups, who say they worry that a criminal investigation won't get at the heart of what is essentially a procedural problem.
Find Erika Bolstad online at adn.com/contact/ebolstad.