Rivals Back Fla. Earmark Probe

Posted April 15, 2008 at 6:43pm

Presidential contenders Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) joined the effort Tuesday to launch an investigation into how a $10 million earmark benefiting a Florida developer connected to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) was slipped into the 2005 transportation bill after it had passed the House and Senate.

According to aides, the lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors of an amendment to the transportation corrections bill that would create a bipartisan, bicameral committee with subpoena powers to investigate the earmark. The amendment was written by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and is backed by Florida Sens. Mel Martinez (R) and Bill Nelson (D).

Coburn and fellow Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, were negotiating changes to the amendment directing the Government Accountability Office to investigate the issue, giving GAO subpoena and document-retention powers, according to Republican and Democratic aides. EPW has jurisdiction over the transportation bill.

Senate Democratic leaders originally balked at the amendment, arguing it raised constitutional questions because Senators would be investigating Members of the House.

EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she opposed the amendment, in part because she does not believe the Senate should be investigating the actions of a House Member or aide.

Although he has denied doing so, Young, the former chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, or his aides are believed to have inserted the language in the bill. Young received campaign contributions from Daniel Aronoff, a real estate developer who sought the project, shortly before the language was inserted. The FBI is investigating.

According to Democrats, during a meeting Tuesday, Boxer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and other leaders discussed the amendment and decided to pursue an alternative.

“The question is who investigates. Here we have questions about a House Member and whether the Senate should investigate a House Member. Sen. Boxer is right. Each chamber has a responsibility for its own membership, but there could be a little different approach that I think might be more comprehensive. … We talked about this in the leadership meeting. We support an investigation. I came up with a suggestion, Sen. Reid said let’s pursue it,” Durbin said. His office did not elaborate.

Reid agreed that an investigation is needed but did not suggest an approach. “I’ve spoken to Sen. Bill Nelson, and he’s indicated that he believes something wrong has occurred,” Reid said.

Boxer backs referring the matter to the Ethics Committee, which she chairs. If the case centered on the House, the panel would not have jurisdiction; only House Members can ask their ethics panel to launch an investigation.

Reid floated the idea of including language directing the attorney general to investigate. “My personal feeling is that rather than telling the House what to do or creating a new committee … what we should do is ask the attorney general to take a real hard look at this since he already has all the relevant authorities to issue subpoenas that would be needed,” Reid said.

Others argued that the DOJ is unlikely to open a separate investigation into how the language was slipped in when it is already investigating Young.

Martinez said an investigation is needed but said the issue of Senate jurisdiction is “a legitimate concern. All I can do is try and create some framework for investigating” this issue.

“Nelson and I were both very comfortable with joining Sen. Coburn in sponsoring this because it’s a really serious problem. … I think its worthwhile having a look-see at this,” he said.