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Detailing Earmark Heaven

In the wake of an admission by the top aide to then-House Appropriations cardinal Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) of exchanging earmarks for concert tickets and free meals, an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense found that clients of a Jack Abramoff associate received more than $16 million in earmarks in the fiscal 2004 transportation spending bill.

In a plea agreement submitted Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, former Congressional staffer John Albaugh, 41, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and admitted to arranging numerous earmarks for clients of “Lobbyist C,” who is not identified but is believed to be Kevin Ring, formerly a lobbyist at the D.C.-based firm Greenberg Traurig.

Although the plea agreement details instances in which Albaugh, Istook — then the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies — and Ring “discussed” procuring federal funds, the projects are not identified in the document.

But according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, six of Ring’s clients received earmarks, at a combined value of more than $16 million, in the fiscal 2004 transportation spending bill, which was passed as part of an omnibus package.

“This case demonstrates the nature of corruption in the earmarking process,” Taxpayers for Common Sense President Ryan Alexander said in a statement. “We cannot continue with a broken system where we only discover corruption though criminal investigation.”

The earmarks identified by Taxpayers for Common Sense include funds for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Colorado Railcar Manufacturing, Elk Grove, Calif., Lincoln, Calif. — a city in the district of Rep. John Doolittle (R), whom Ring once worked for as a House aide — the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and Carter County, Mont.

Among those recipients, five of the six listed no representation other than Greenberg Traurig during 2003. The sixth, the Choctaw Mississippi Band, contracted with multiple lobbyists, but according to lobby reports hired only Greenberg Traurig to pursue appropriations for the tribe.

According to the plea agreement, Albaugh acknowledged in mid-July 2003 that he “agreed to ensure that clients of Lobbyist C or Firm B received more than $4 million in a subcommittee draft of the transportation appropriations bill.”

In subsequent e-mails in November, Albaugh detailed that at least four of Ring’s clients would receive amounts ranging from $1 million to $1.4 million in the appropriations bill, adding, “Whos [sic] the man!”

In its analysis, Taxpayers for Common Sense found that the Choctaw Mississippi Band received $1.4 million for a Choctaw Roads project; the city of Elk Grove received two earmarks, $300,000 for the Sheldon Road-State Route 99 interchange and another $960,000 for a “traffic operations center”; the city of Lincoln received four earmarks, $500,000 for expansion of regional buses, $1 million for the Lincoln Boulevard Improvement Project, $2 million for the Lincoln bypass-State Route 65 Ferrari Interchange construction and $250,000 for the Auburn Ravine Bridge.

In addition, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe received $1.2 million for its “transportation improvement project.”

Taxpayers for Common Sense also lists $1 million for the Saginaw Transit Multimodal Downtown Transit Facility, but notes that those funds are “less clear but may also be at the request of the Tribe.”

Colorado Railcar Manufacturing also received $5 million in the spending bill, according to the taxpayers group, to “study the use of diesel multiple units.”

Although the company is not named in the earmark, the analysis notes that the wording in the bill effectively limited the funds to CRM, as the only U.S.-owned railcar designer and manufacturer. The Federal Railroad Administration granted the funds to the Florida Department of Transportation and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which ultimately contracted with CRM.

In addition, as Roll Call previously reported, during a concert at the then-MCI Center in July 2003, Albaugh, Istook and Ring discussed procuring a $4.18 million earmark for one of the lobbyist’s clients.

Among Ring’s clients at the time was Carter County, which paid Greenberg Traurig $60,000 in 2003, and whose federal disclosure forms listed its lobbying issue as “secure federal funding for highway project.”

In the report accompanying the House version of the fiscal 2004 transportation spending bill, there is one item that matches that amount: Under the National Scenic Byways Program, Montana State Route 323 from Alzada to Ekalaka — towns in Carter County — would receive $4.18 million. The project ultimately received $3.5 million.

In a statement on Monday, Istook said FBI officials have told him he is not under investigation. Istook is not named in the plea agreement, but Albaugh is listed as having worked in the office of “Representative 4.”

Albaugh, in fact, had worked for Istook since he was first elected in 1993, serving as his chief of staff from 1998 until Istook left office in January 2007.

Albaugh will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle on Sept. 17. He faces 18 to 24 months in prison, according to federal sentencing guidelines, but the government could ask for less depending on the extent of his cooperation.

Abramoff pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2006, to separate charges of tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials. But he has not been sentenced on those charges because he continues to cooperate with federal investigators.

He is serving a five-and-a-half-year sentence at a minimum-security prison in Cumberland, Md., for his role in a separate fraud case involving Florida-based SunCruz Casino.

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