Lee County, Florida Rejects ‘Mystery’ $10 Million Earmark from Alaska Rep.

Published November 1, 2007

Why would an Alaska congressman make a $10 million earmark for a Florida road project that local officials do not want?

That’s a question Lee County, Florida officials pondered before voting on August 17 to reject the money offered to them by Alaska Rep. Don Young (R). Fundraising for Young by a Florida real estate developer apparently prompted the earmark.

The project was “something that was nowhere on our list of priorities,” said Carla Brooks Johnston, chairwoman of the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which rejected the money. She also serves as vice mayor of Sanibel.

“We were absolutely appalled that this happened outside of the usual Constitutional process,” Johnston said. “I am very proud that 10 out of 13 [MPO members] voted to not begin the process of spending money.”

She added county officials have received “many emails from people who were pleased with the vote the board took.”

Another Rejection Needed

But the MPO may have to reject the money again to satisfy the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

FDOT District Secretary Stanley Cann sent a letter to Johnston and the MPO on August 24 informing them they did not provide proper notice and time for public comment before making their decision. He said officials must rescind the decision and follow proper procedures, including providing public notice and time for public comment, before voting to reject the money.

Unless that happens, Cann said, Lee County will not receive federal money for future road projects.

The story of the mystery earmark started in 2005 when the federal highway bill (Transportation Equity Act–A Legacy for Users, TEA-LU) was being debated and ultimately passed. During the enrollment process of the bill, when basic mistakes are cleaned up before the bill is sent to the White House, a $10 million earmark for Lee and Collier Counties in Florida was quietly changed from “widening and improvements in I-75” to Coconut Road Interchange/I-75.

Owns Property There

There currently is no Coconut Road interchange. The earmark would have put an interchange into future highway plans. A real estate developer who has raised money for Young owns property there.

With more than 6,500 earmarks in the bill, the “minor” change went virtually unnoticed. The local member of Congress, Connie Mack (R-FL), did not even know about the project.

On August 17 of this year The Washington Post noted, “As documented over the past few months by the Naples Daily News, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), who served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during the 2005 re-write of the national highway bill, took in $40,000 in campaign contributions at an event in February 2005 hosted by the developer. By the time the highway bill went to the White House in August 2005, a $10 million earmark had appeared for a new interchange off of I-75, known as the Coconut Road exchange. The developer [Michael Aronoff] owned property near the proposed interchange and would presumably build new homes on that land.”

‘Symbolic Victory’

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, DC-based government watchdog group, applauded the Lee County MPO decision, saying, “This is a symbolic victory over wasteful spending.”

Schatz added, “This situation is a textbook example of what is wrong with earmarks. They are often unwarranted and unwanted expenditures that circumvent normal budgetary procedures, override the priorities of local authorities, and reward special interests while corrupting their sponsors. Congratulations to Lee County for not wanting to be associated with Rep. Young and for standing up against the powerful pork machine.”

David Williams ([email protected]) is vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, in Washington, DC.