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Fla. County Says 'No Thanks' to $10 million Earmark

In a highly rare move, a local planning commission in Southwest Florida today overwhelmingly voted to reject a $10 million congressional earmark for a highway project, declaring that local officials never wanted the money in the first place.

The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization passed a resolution pleading for Congress to allow the body to spend the $10 million on a worthy highway project of its choice, rather than on a new interchange near Naples that would benefit a developer with close ties to a powerful House Republican.

As documented over the past few months by the Naples Daily News, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during the 2005 re-write of the national highway bill, took in $40,000 in campaign contributions at an event in February 2005 hosted by the developer. By the time the highway bill went to the White House in August 2005, a $10 million earmark had appeared for a new interchange off of I-75, known as the Coconut Road exchange. The developer owned property near the proposed interchange and would presumably build new homes on that land.

The county planning organization tried before to reject the money, citing other needs to expand different portions of the interstate to make hurricane evacuations easier. But the local officials were told the funds had to be spent on Coconut Road. "We were told we would jeopardize our future funding. ... Along came this gift of $10 million for Coconut Road, and it wasn't anywhere in our needs," Carla Johnston, a member of the county's MPO, told Capitol Briefing in a phone interview.

The county organization hired a former U.S. Labor Department congressional liaison, Darla Letourneau, who investigated the Coconut Road earmark. Letourneau reported last week that the earmark, as passed in the final version of the highway bill by the House and Senate in late July 2005, included broadly worded language allowing for the $10 million to be spent on "widening and improvements in I-75." But during what Congress calls the "enrollment process" -- a time for cleaning up any basic mistakes in the bill before sending it to the White House -- the earmark was changed to designate the funds for "Coconut Rd. interchange/I-75."

Outraged by the late switch in language with no explanation, the Lee County planning organization met today to vote once again to reject the funds. This time, in front of a packed meeting room of more than 200 people, the group formally asked its state congressional delegation to push to include language in a new highway bill that would allow Lee County to spend the $10 million on projects its officials actually support. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who represents the county, has pledged to work with to make the changes. The only problem is that the new highway bill, as a technical corrections measure to the 2005 law, has already passed the House.

Johnston said she is planning a meeting with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to get him to push to include the change in the Senate bill.

Keith Ashdown, an earmark specialist at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he could not recall any similar situation in which towns or counties rejected such a big earmark.

Young has not commented on the Coconut Road earmark. When a New York Times reporter sought to ask him questions in June, Young made an obscene gesture at the reporter. Young is under investigation by the Justice Department for his ties to an Alaskan energy services corporation, whose former CEO pleaded guilty in May to bribing five state legislators and other unnamed public officials. Separately, a former top aide to Young on the Transportation Committee pleaded guilty to accepting illegal gifts from now imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Johnston declined to address the issue of what the county organization will do if it cannot get the law changed. "I am highly optimistic," she said.

By Paul Kane  |  August 17, 2007; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  House , Purse Strings  
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Come on, this is a joke, right? If it isn't, I applaud Lee County's Planning Commission for standing up against a politician trying to fix things for his buddies.

Isn't this illegal?

Posted by: Amazed | August 17, 2007 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Chalk one up for the local politicians.

The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization ought to go one step further and resolve that there will never be a Coconut Road interchange.

The unnamed developer should have known to 'build up' local support before buying an Alaskan Congressman.

Apparently, Rep. Young is under the impression that Naples politicians are as inherently corrupt as Alaskan pols, and that American citizens are too stupid to recognize such a blatant quid pro quo. Good thing he was wrong on both counts.

Its also helpful that Naples is an affluent community, as there are many communities that wouldn't have been able to afford to turn this down.

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It would be spectacular if the Post would make the effort themselves to prevent or remove the porn links.

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Posted by: picketing pick | August 18, 2007 12:02 PM | Report abuse

This is what Tip O'Neill meant when he said that all politics are local. The Rove vision lives on here in SWFL. It's too bad the Democrats are such wimps and despite all their tough talk, THEY can't climb out of the pork barrell either. Way to go Lee County!!!

Posted by: dbeofuse | August 19, 2007 4:45 PM | Report abuse

The bridge that fell down and now needs to be replaced MUST meet the requirements of the funding legislation. These requirements do not reflect the wishes of the people here in Minnesota who are responsible for the replacement In a time when money is said to be tight, why can't we use good sense in applying the money for the replacement wanted by the people involved? Where's the money for ongoing research for AIDS medications and possibly a cure, or money to feed the hungry, or provide a roof over some citizen's head? The list could be a lot longer but my grant (of $00.00) will not allow this and if we use the money in any other way, we lose all of it!

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Screw the staock market, I'm taking my money, and investing in a politician.
I hear the returns can be phenomenal.

Posted by: jime | August 22, 2007 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Congressmens Young's rates have gone up. Just few years ago Skip Berg, who lives in California, gave Alaskan congressman Young a $5,000 contribution and got a $20,000,000 earmark for Berg's Port Sonoma ferry terminal project. The $20,000,000 is to go directly to Berg's corporation with no public oversight. IE a gift of public funds, pure and simple. If this isn't graft, I don't know what is.

Posted by: afgail | August 23, 2007 1:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm wondering if a third political party might defeat the business as usual career politicians. I'm sure ready. A platform such as no direct campaign contributions to candidates, only to the party. Most campaigning can be done via internet, cheaply. Think along the lines of the failed "contract with America" and you'll get my drift. I hope someone out there can pick this up and go with it.

Posted by: Dale DeShazo | August 24, 2007 7:39 PM | Report abuse

FYI, a similar thing happened in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Rep. John Boozman worked a tit-for-tat on votes with Young and/or Stevens to get 30 million bucks to widen Eighth Street in Bentonville which connects WM HQ with their technology center and a half dozen other offices in between.

City of Bentonville personnel were as surprised as these Florida folks when the bill passed and they got 30 million for a city street they knew nothing about. WM bypassed the city government and went straight to their rep to get money to improve a non-state road.

I believe Boozman supported the Alaskans' lousy earmarks in exchange for the 30 million being included.

Boozman was/is a good guy, but it's hard not to be swayed by the thousands of WM-related votes in NW Arkansas.

Posted by: Bill McNeal | August 27, 2007 1:19 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: Mary Rambler | August 28, 2007 11:58 AM | Report abuse

He had no support locally, because where he wants to build is a protected rural area for aquifer recharge, which Florida uses for drinking water. There is another exit within a mile or two just north of Coconut. And another one just south a few more miles. The population is growing, but plenty of new county roads are already being built, but not in such ecologically sensitive areas. It is simply amazing how determined outsiders are to ruin other people's homes!

Posted by: karen | August 29, 2007 9:02 AM | Report abuse

None of this ongoing corruption could have happened without the blessings of Connie Mack and all the other Republican thieves and crooks.

Time for Florida to wake up to the whole picture and get rid of Connie Mack, another greedy thieving hypocrite Republican scumbag.

But most right wing floridians are too stupid to do that. They're so gullible like most southerners. STupid and gullible idiots. I know I live with 'em.

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