A $1 million earmark request by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) would allow the Interior Department to expand a wilderness area neighboring properties the Congressman owns.
Mollohan’s request for the project — contained in the Interior-environment appropriations bill passed by the House on Wednesday — was dated six days after the Dominion Post newspaper of Morgantown, W.Va., reported that the Justice Department had issued a subpoena for a witness to testify before a grand jury about Mollohan’s finances. Critics have accused Mollohan of steering earmarks to friends, business partners and contributors.
A Mollohan spokesman flatly rejected the notion that there was anything wrong with the earmark, and pointed out that conservation groups and the federal government have deemed the wilderness area a high priority project. Mollohan himself said any allegation that he is profiting from the earmark is “far-fetched to the point of absurdity.”
The earmark in the Interior appropriations bill would provide $1 million for land acquisition for the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Northeast West Virginia. In a disclosure letter required by the Appropriations Committee, Mollohan said the funding “would be used to acquire tracts of land identified as priorities by the Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the boundaries of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.”
Mollohan also certified “that neither I nor my spouse has any financial interest in this project.”
But Mollohan owns two properties in Tucker County, near the boundaries of the refuge — one with a home and an adjacent lot, the other a lot with no building — that he lists on his financial disclosure forms as being worth a total of $550,000 to $1,100,000. With two ski resorts nearby and several housing developments along the same road, local officials say property values are skyrocketing in the area, and placing more land off-limits to development will simply increase the price of the existing lots.
“It’s getting pretty tight up there,” said Paul Burns, the assessor for Tucker County. “We don’t have much land to develop. The more land [federal agencies] buy, the less we have … they pay outrageous prices for it, and then individuals can’t afford to buy there.”
Murray Dearborn, a real estate agent in the area, said, “what they’ve done is they take so much valuable land out of there — that it doesn’t have any future” for development. “Existing property will go up [in value], but when that’s gone, it’s gone.”
Dearborn said Mollohan’s properties are very near the wildlife refuge. “I think his property abuts wildlife refuge land,” Dearborn said. “He probably looks over the wildlife refuge.”
Asked whether Mollohan is using earmarks to increase the value of his property, Mollohan spokesman Gerry Griffith said, “The implication is absurd.” The project “was strongly urged by two independent entities — the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund — and has been a priority for the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Griffith said. Mollohan did not ask the ethics committee to review the project, Griffith said. “The proper request forms were considered and signed by the Congressman.”
The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund both confirmed that they strongly support the earmark for the wildlife refuge.
Rodney Bartgis, West Virginia director of the Nature Conservancy, said, “the conservation of this property has exceptional value because of the wetlands and the wildlife on it … along with The Conservation Fund, we requested an appropriation from Mr. Mollohan.”
The Conservation Fund spokeswoman Kathryn Brown said “this land makes a lot of sense to hang on to and preserve.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service also listed the wildlife refuge among its priorities for the 2008 appropriations cycle. In a July 2006 memo, FWS ranked Canaan Valley as number 68 of the service’s 78 land acquisition priorities. The Interior bill also carries earmarks requested by other Members to fund seven more acquisition priorities from the FWS list. None of the other Members appear to own property in close proximity to the wilderness areas for which they have requested money.
The Appropriations Committee did not review each earmark request for possible ethics concerns, requiring only that the paperwork and disclosure forms be in order before the earmark was added to the bill.
However, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct ruled in May that an earmark requested by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) for a transit station near several commercial properties he owns did not amount to a financial conflict because Calvert was not the sole beneficiary of the project and the increase in his property value was speculative. In its letter to Calvert, the committee said when determining the impact of an earmark on a Member’s real estate holding, the factors to consider include whether the real estate “would be affected uniquely or as part of a class.”
Earmark critics argued this precedent would allow Members of Congress to pursue almost any earmark, as long as it benefited other people as well as themselves.