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Local Officials Again Reject Alaskans' Earmarks

It was a long, hot summer for Alaska's two senior members of Congress -- Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R -- as both came under scrutiny in a burgeoning corruption investigation in their home state. And now even their earmarking power is losing some of its pop.

For the second time in a week, local officials have rejected multi-million-dollar earmarks that came courtesy of Stevens and Young, both of whom are senior members of powerful committees.

The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees growth projects around the Naples, Fla., region, voted 6-5 this morning to reject a $10 million earmark for a proposed new interchange off of I-75. It's actually the third time this year that the county organization refused the money, but today's vote was needed because past votes occurred after procedural mishaps that violated internal rules. So today's vote is the official action refusing the earmark, which was written into the 2005 federal highway bill that Young authored when he chaired the House Transportation Committee.

The county MPO hopes to spend the $10 million instead on widening I-75, which local officials consider a top highway priority to make hurricane evacuations easier. Officials have accused Young of pushing the earmark because of a fundraiser thrown for the lawmaker by developers in Naples. Those developers own land next to the proposed new interchange, which would likely increase the value of any new homes built next to a new interchange.

The Naples move follows an announcement last Friday from Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) that the state would not build a bridge to connect remote Ketchikan, an island with just 50 residents, to another more populated area of the state. Young and Stevens, the longest serving GOP senator in history, originally secured more than $200 million in the 2005 highway bill for the bridge. Opponents labeled it the "Bridge to Nowhere" and successfully stripped language directing the money to the bridge project. But the state wound up with $200 million to spend how it saw fit.

It's a sign of their declining power that local and state officials would defy Stevens and Young on these projects.

Two years ago, when Stevens and Young were at their apex of power, the conventional wisdom was that Alaska would spend the $200 million on the bridge. Now Palin, who has not been entangled in any of the corruption investigations, has deemed the bridge project fiscally irresponsible.

When Lee County, Fla., planners originally questioned the $10 million interchange earmark, Young's office said the county had to spend the money on the interchange or else lose federal funding on future projects. But local officials hired a consultant to investigate the earmark, learning that originally the highway bill did not specify a new interchange. After it passed both the House and Senate, but before it was sent to the White House, someone changed the language of the earmark to specifically read "interchange." Florida's congressional delegation is now working on legislative language to allow Lee County to spend the money on widening I-75.

Young and Stevens have generally declined to comment on the spiraling investigations into alleged corruption back home in Alaska. They're both under fire for their links to VECO, the energy services company whose ex-CEO has pleaded guilty to bribing members of the state legislature, including Ben Stevens, the son of Ted Stevens and a former state senator.

The ex-CEO of VECO, Bill Allen, testified in a related trial of a state lawmaker this month that he personally oversaw the massive renovation of Ted Stevens's home outside Anchorage, using his own employees to perform the work. Another VECO executive who pleaded guilty to bribery said that part of his job was to arrange fundraising events for Young.

By Paul Kane  |  September 28, 2007; 6:10 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , Purse Strings  
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Next: Ted Stevens' Son on Investigation: "We're Big Fish"

Comments

..."state would not build a bridge to connect remote Ketchikan, an island with just 50 residents, to another more populated area of the state."

Eh? I moved from Alaska 20 years ago but this is news to me that the population of Ketchikan has dropped so dramatically. I just checked the official city website and they are claiming a total population of 14,500. Perhaps, you mean that the bridge would connect Revillagigedo Island (location of Ketchikan) to one of the smaller islands located close by and, where no doubt, some of the Alaskan Republican establishment owns land scheduled for development????

Posted by: BeeinSac | September 28, 2007 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps, before these two are thrown in jail, they can earmark money for the widening of some men's room stalls in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Just an idea...

Posted by: Patrick Huss | September 29, 2007 9:03 AM | Report abuse

BeeinSac,

You got it right. The project would have connected the city of Ketchikan, population around 8,000 (13,000 if you include the whole county, to Gravina Island, the location of the airport and just about nothing else.

Posted by: carp | October 1, 2007 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Having lived in Alaska for 21 years, I have watched as the political pendulum swung from balanced Democrat and Republican representation to a corrupt Repupublican representation conrolling the state and now bringing shame federally.
Governor Palin is an honorable, above reproach representative of the state. The state was fairly balanced until "Newt's contract with America". We voted out the Democrats and it has steadily gone down hill until Governor Palin's election. I know Senator Stevens, former Senator, and Governor, Murkowski, however, Rep Young is a basically unknown to me. None of us are fishing buddies.
The bridge you are referring to was to run from Point MacKenzie in the Mat-Su Borough, across the Cook Inlet, to Anchorage. That is the only bridge I have heard of. Many people live in the Mat-Su and work in Anchorage. That bridge would have some merit even though it would come ashore on the Anchorage side in a very bad area with respect to traffic and neighborhoods. If this other bridge is truly proposed, it is, by all means a farcicle proposal.
The records of Senator Stevens, Senator Murkowski, Representative Young, and the new Senator Murkowski, appointed by her father to replace himself, after his election as governor preceeding the current Governor Palin, are there for all to see and peruse. "Little Ben" has always kept a low profile, however, when the scab was scratched off, a lot of low profile movers and shakers were found to be less than desireable. I want to see my beloved "Last Frontier" remain pristine and clean, that means scallawags, carpet baggers, and schiesters are not welcome.
Sergeant Major

Posted by: Raymond R Roughton III | October 2, 2007 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Did the House pass the FY2008 budget or is the federal government in another "Continuing Resolution" (CR) like last year with spending supposedly at the previous year's level? How many earmarks are there in FY2008 and how much does the earmarks include?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 3, 2007 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Finally Don Young, Ted Stevens and Ben Stevens are getting the scrutiny that should have happened years ago. Alaskans are just as appalled at the criminal bribery as folks elsewhere. Unfortunately that has been largely overlooked as "normal" "Bringing Home the Bacon". Now in hindsight, it looks more like payback for illegal gifts and contributions.

Unfortunately Gov. Palin has yet to cancel the other "Bridge to Nowhere", the Knik Arm Bridge between Anchorage and nearly empty land on the other side of the Knik Arm. Yes, the landowners on the far side include Ted Steven's former aide Trevor McCabe (who was also a business partner with Ted's son, Ben Stevens), and Don Young's son-in-law Art Nelson. 60 acres of what would become prime real estate if the bridge is built.

The Knik Arm Bridge is still sucking in ~$100 Million in Federal $ with the remaining $500 to $800 Million plus planned to be paid for by a Public Private Partnership (P3). Unfortunately the terms of the agreement for the P3 contract are being negotiated in secret with foreign investors, with no opportunity for public or legislative oversight.

Hopefully the Federal Government will not be suckered into granting a Transportation
Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA)loan, where the entire country would be on the hook when the P3 defaults because there is no-one to pay the tolls. Those tollls are supposed to pay for design, construction, and maintenance, as well as future expansion necessary to get it to meet Federal Highway Standards.

Tough to pay off $600 M to $1 Billion three dollars at a time, when there is essentially no one who lives on the far side of the proposed bridge right now!

Posted by: Bob French | October 3, 2007 5:01 PM | Report abuse

The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization is the M.P.O. for the Cape Coral-Fort Myers Metropolitan Area, but covers all of Lee County including those parts of the Naples-Bonita Springs Metropolitan Area lying within Lee County, including the Estero community where the I 7/ Coconut Road interchange would have been located.

A front page article in the 12/19/07 Fort Myers News-Press (http://www.news-press.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007712190377) reports that Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has called for an investigation into the the $10 million earmark for a Coconut Road interchange on I 75, and provides additional details about the political/financial machinations behind the insertion of this earmark into the 2005 Transportation Reauthorization Act.

Daniel Aronoff, who the News-Press reports to have been the local power broker principally responsible for raising $40,000 in "contributions" for Don Young in February 2005, is one of the owners of some 4,000 acres of undeveloped land, mostly swamp, east of I 75 opposite the end of Coconut Road that currently has no road access. The $10 million earmark was apparently intended as a "camel's nose" to pressure Florida DOT into adding the interchange to its master plan for I 75, the Lee County MPO into adding such an interchange into the MPO's long range plan and Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), and both into allocating several times the earmarked amount in scarce state funds for its design, right of way, and construction; as well as to pressure Lee County into amending its comprehensive plan to allow the land east of I 75 to be developed. The county's comprehensive plan currently allows development of the land east of I 75 opposite Coconut Road at only the very lowest density because it is a critical aquifer recharge area for local public water supply wellfields, as well as prime habitat for the endangered Florida panther and various other species of special concern.

The main advocates for the interchange among lcoal public officials have been the mayor and council of Bonita Springs, which hope such an interchange would alleviate traffic on Bonita Beach Road, and Congressman Connie Mack and former Lee County Commissioner John Albion, who were apparently privy to the political deal-making behind the earmark. From the very beginning, then-Commissioner Albion repeatedly warned of the danger of retaliation against future local funding requests if the MPO refused to add the Coconut Interchange to its long range plan and TIP.

Let's hope that Congressman Coburn gets the investigation into this earmark he is calling for. It's high time for Congress to put a stop to the practice of inserting earmarks into legislation in return for political "contributions" by special interests.

Posted by: Glen Ahlert | December 19, 2007 4:42 PM | Report abuse

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