Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) spirited floor defense Wednesday of his earmark for a road in Florida ignited a brouhaha with Sunshine State Republicans who denied his contention that they backed the project.
Young voted in favor of legislation recommending the Justice Department investigate how his earmark for Coconut Road became law, as well as reallocating the $10 million for a different Florida project. The Senate already passed the bill and pushed the probe.
“The Senate is meddling in House affairs,” Young said. “I will support that [bill], but remember that is a slippery, slippery road which we are about to be involved in.”
In his most extensive discussion of the earmark to date, Young sought to paint the project — to study a new highway interchange near Fort Myers, Fla., included in the $286.4 billion highway bill in 2005 — as the product of local demand. He did not mention that the road would have benefited a developer who raised money for him.
“I have been the subject of much innuendo concerning my intent and motivations in this project,” Young said. “These accusations have little, if any, connection with what actually occurred.”
In his only apparent reference to Florida developer Daniel Aronoff, Young said: “Some in the media have made this study into being about one landowner in the area. Not one word has been mentioned about the hundreds of people who attended the town hall meeting in support of this study or about the numerous local organizations and officials who supported it.”
The Alaska lawmaker, who served as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when the highway bill passed, detailed a meeting of local officials at Florida Gulf Coast University on transportation issues — noting that Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) invited him to visit his district, home to the disputed project. Young released letters from Mack urging Lee County, Fla., planning officials not to reject the funds after the bill had been approved.
“I hope this sets the record straight. This project was asked for by the community. It was supported by the Congressman from that district.”
But according to Mack and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), whose neighboring district includes Interstate 75 but would not be affected by the proposed interchange, neither lawmaker requested funds for the project. Both lawmakers acknowledge seeking and winning a separate $81 million allocation to widen the Interstate in the area.
“Congressman Mack never in any way, shape or form asked for this money,” said Jeff Cohen, Mack’s chief of staff.
Diaz-Balart said he attended the initial meeting in February 2005 at the university but only to promote the highway expansion.
“I never requested it. I didn’t ask for it. It was not my project. It was not my district,” Diaz-Balart said. “I remember hearing about it in that hearing, but it wasn’t something in my district.”
During his floor speech, Young also denied responsibility for the earmark being added during the enrollment process after the legislation passed the House and Senate.
“That is not a process I own or control. There are officers of the House and Senate whose job is to oversee this process. A committee chairman does not control the enrollment process,” Young said, noting that the bill was handled by numerous House and Senate committees and included nearly 6,200 earmarks.
A Young aide has acknowledged inserting the $10 million allocation for the project into the highway bill but contends it constituted only a technical change.
“Legislation has been changed by the enrollment process when it is considered not the intent of the House,” Young added. Under the measure’s initial language, the $10 million would have provided additional funds to widen the interstate but was altered to provide funds to study a new interchange. The technical corrections bills passed Wednesday would revert the funds to their original intent.
Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.