Things can move slowly in Washington, D.C. — slower than it takes to widen an interstate highway.
The expansion of Interstate 75 — made possible by the $286.4 billion federal highway bill of 2005 — is almost complete, while little or no progress can be reported on the investigation into who changed the spending bill after it was passed by Congress and signed by the president.
We have known for nearly four years that someone added $10 million to the bill after it was debated and became law. The $10 million expenditure was earmarked specifically for an I-75 interchange at Coconut Road between Fort Myers and Naples.
Most Southwest Floridians were pleased the bill provided $81 million for widening the interstate, but the extra $10 million caused head scratching and eyebrow hiking.
Road planners and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers, said they didn’t request the extra $10 million. Residents in the area weren’t pushing for it either.
The press started asking questions, eventually connecting the earmark request to U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who was in Southwest Florida for a fundraiser five months before the highway bill was passed. About $40,000 was raised for Young, who at the time was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In other words, he held the keys to the massive highway spending plan.
Then, the Daily News reported that one of the big contributors at the fundraiser was a land developer who would have much to gain from a interchange at Coconut Road.
Calls for a congressional and/or a Justice Department investigation followed. When the calls persisted, Young took to the House floor and denied the $10 million earmark was a favor to campaign donors. He said it was for a project that Mack and the community supported. He said the penciled-in change to the bill specifically earmarking $10 million for Coconut Road was not criminal, just a legal, clerical correction. He invited an investigation, saying he had nothing to hide.
Mack, who arranged for Young’s trip to Southwest Florida, later confronted Young and called his fellow Republican a liar. That was well over a year ago and little has been heard on the issue.
That is, until a few weeks ago.
On Oct. 23, the Associated Press reported that documents were filed in federal court directly linking Young for the first time to a widespread corruption probe in his home state. The filing alleges Young received illegal gifts of nearly $200,000 from an Alaskan-based oil field services company.
The allegations were isolated to corruption in Alaska. There was no mention of Florida.
However, the Washington Post reported last week that the House Ethics Committee had sought information from Mack, specifically about the $10 million earmark for Coconut Road.
“A document obtained by The Washington Post shows that the committee requested information from Mack and expected a response by Aug. 28,” Post reporter Perry Bacon wrote. “The congressman said in a statement released (Oct. 29) by his office that the inquiry does not focus on him and that he had no involvement with the project.”
The statement from Mack’s office read:
“We’ve been told that we may be a witness to an investigation of others, but we are, of course, not the subject of any investigation.”
In a few months, the five-year anniversary of Congressman Young’s visit and local fundraiser will have passed and the $81 billion widening project will be all but complete, minus a Coconut Road interchange and — we fear — answers to a few important questions.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org