WASHINGTON - Rep. Don Young for the first time offered a public defense of a secretive transportation earmark that so angered fellow lawmakers that they called on the Justice Department to investigate it.
Speaking Wednesday 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 intended to benefit anyone in particular. The accusations about his role in it have "little if any connection with what actually occurred," Young said in an 11-minute speech.
His remarks came just hours before the House voted 358-51 to join a Senate call for a Justice Department investigation into the earmark. The Senate historian's office said it could recall no example in modern times of the Senate ever asking the department to look into possible criminal conduct by a House member.
Young voted Wednesday for the Senate amendment and the overall bill, which 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 controversial Coconut Road interchange study in Lee County.
Young also repeated what he's said before about the earmark: That it was sought in particular by Florida Gulf Coast University, which wanted the interchange study to evaluate hurricane evacuation needs. That request was made clear when he attended a community meeting there in 2005, Young said.
"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. And there's letters to back that up."
But many in the community were baffled when they got $10 million for the study and not road widening, which they had requested. That same planning board voted last year to send it back to Washington if they couldn't get the money devoted to their original request to widen Interstate 75.
The FBI has interviewed community activists who said they believed an interchange would allow the development of environmentally sensitive land owned by developer Daniel Aronoff, a Young campaign contributor. Young, who set up a legal expense fund this year to pay for lawyers, is under scrutiny in a wider Justice Department probe. Young has spent more than $1 million from campaign funds the past year on lawyers to represent him in that investigation.
While in Florida in 2005, Young attended a fundraiser with Rep. Connie Mack, the Republican congressman who represents the area. Young never mentioned Mack by name in his speech, but it is clear he was referring to his colleague when he said that the earmark had support from the local congressman.
In the weeks before and after the earmark showed up in the transportation bill, Young's campaign and his political action committee collected more then $40,000 in campaign contributions from Aronoff, his lobbyist and other business interests.
Contributors included transportation lobbyist 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.
The Florida trip was one of dozens of such trips documented by a McClatchy Newspapers investigation last year. In his time as chairman of the transportation committee, Young traveled the country, often in private planes provided by corporations with an interest in landing earmarks that would benefit their companies.
Young often tacked on fundraisers to those trips. The McClatchy investigation found that beneficiaries of just seven transportation earmarks with a total price of $259 million gave Young at least $575,000 in campaign donations when he was chairman.
Young said Wednesday on the House floor that his visit to Florida was to participate in a town hall meeting at Florida Gulf Coast University about transportation, and to look at potential projects for the transportation bill. He said he "traveled extensively throughout the country at the request of House Members and state and local officials."
"For the thousands and thousands of transportation projects requested of us, I visited as many communities as possible to meet with members, the local officials and the public to discuss these requests," Young said.
He also pointed out that even though the $10 million went to the interchange study, the highway bill earmarked a separate $81 million to widen I-75 in southwest Florida.
Mack on Wednesday read a carefully worded statement on the House floor, just before Young. Mack had previously supported the earmark for the interchange study, but in recent months has backed the community clamor to change it back to road widening.
"While this matter has received well-deserved scrutiny, the legislative process - however flawed it has been - is now doing what the people want and deserve," Mack said. "I would hope that as a result of what we've learned and what we may continue to learn, that this institution will be better and that we ensure it never happens again."
Even as Young defended the Coconut Road earmark on Wednesday, he offered little explanation for how it was inserted into the highway-spending bill after the House and Senate both had voted on it. That has long been the biggest mystery about the earmark, as well as the procedural violation that has most angered Young's fellow lawmakers and congressional watchdog groups.
The actual changes to the earmark came during the enrollment process, when transportation committee staffers from both political parties - as well as both the House and Senate - sat down with clerks to fix technical problems with the bill. One of Young's aides on the transportation committee made the change, after both the House and Senate voted on it, Young's staff has said.
LOTS OF CHANGES
As chairman, Young said, he had no control over the bill enrollment process, when clerks clean up typos and minor errors in the legislation before it's sent to the president for his signature. He has never been in an enrollment office, Young said.
"A committee chairman does not control the enrollment process," Young said.
But Young did say that he thought such changes were not unusual and that other changes were made. The city of Jacksonville was mentioned in the bill, Young said, but Congress failed to specify which of the six U.S. cities named Jacksonville they meant.
"It had to be changed and it was changed prior to the president, (prior to) going to his desk," Young said. "And the House never voted on it. And I can go on to other cases where legislation has been changed by the enrollment process when it is considered not the intent of the House."
Although Young voted for the bill Wednesday, he accused the Senate of "meddling in House affairs" by including the request for a Justice Department investigation. He warned that allowing the investigation was a "slippery, slippery road we're about to be involved in."
The Justice Department has refused to comment on what role it would play in any investigation of how the earmark has changed.
By ERIKA BOLSTAD