Friday, April 18, 2008

Alaska Congressman Don Young On The Ropes; U.S. Senate Votes 63-29 For Criminal Probe Of Coconut Road Earmark

The U.S. Senate today took the unusual step of asking the Justice Department to investigate Rep. Don Young's now-infamous Coconut Road earmark. Stories from the Anchorage Daily News, the ADN's Alaska Politics blog, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and KTUU Channel 2. Also written up in the Washington Post and CNN.

Newer Anchorage Daily News story HERE.

The Senate voted 63-29 in favor of Senator Barbara Boxer's proposal to ask the Justice Department to investigate the circumstances surrounding the 2005 earmark, which shifted $10 million from a road-widening project in southwest Florida to a study of an interchange that could have benefited one of Young' campaign donors. The earmark was in the 2005 highway bill that Young oversaw as chairman of the House Transportation Committee. It was added to the legislation after the House and Senate had already voted on the bill, a procedural move that has angered other members of Congress and led to today's call for an investigation.

Both of Alaska's senators, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, closed ranks around Young by voting against it. However, Stevens and Murkowski voted in favor of an alternative measure proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) that would have appointed four members each from the House and Senate to form a joint Congressional investigative committee. That measure failed, with only 49 voting Yes, and 40 voting No. Sixty or more Yes votes were required for passage of Coburn's alternative.

Young continues to maintain that the community asked for the change, and that it mirrors what was asked for. But he also benefited from campaign donations raised by a developer who owns 4,000 acres near the proposed interchange. The Naples News reported that developer Daniel Aronoff held a fundraiser for Young in 2005, bringing in more than $40,000 for his campaign. The Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization has rejected the earmark three times in the past year because it requires the money be spent on that project instead of on highway improvements throughout the county.

Congressman Young did not respond to media requests for reaction to this vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid explained the vote. "If violations of federal criminal law occurred, it is the province of the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate and prosecute them," Reid said.

KTUU recorded reaction by Young's opponents. Democrat Jake Metcalfe said, "He's our public servant, our only congressman. He has to come clean so our reputation is intact or we can get back to where we build that reputation up and we have leaders that we can trust".

Democrat Ethan Berkowitz said there were no "conceivable circumstances" in which changing an appropriation after it's signed into law would be OK. "When you have that kind of change in language, what you've done is undercut the rule of law and you've undercut the integrity of the legislative process", Berkowitz said.

Democrat Diane Benson also sounded off. "I think when you do something after the fact, you'd have to go through some kind of a process to modify the legislation, certainly something that's visible", Benson said.

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, one of Young's opponents in the Republican primary, said the legislative process was hijacked and that what happened -- whoever did it -- was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. But there's no indication that Young's other Republican opponent, Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Kodiak), was contacted. It looks like the media is starting to marginalize LeDoux for some reason.

And the Alaska public wasted no time in manifesting their disgust with Congressman Young. In an unscientific poll conducted Thursday, April 17th, KTUU asked viewers whether or not the Coconut Road earmark controversy should affect Congressman Don Young's re-election campaign. Nearly 3,000 respondents responded to the following question:

How much of an impact do you think the Coconut Road earmark controversy should have on Don Young's re-election campaign?

None -- 7%
Some -- 3%
A lot -- 90%

Commentary: It's sad to watch another elected official who has rendered lengthy and distinguished service to the state of Alaska politically melt down before my eyes. Don Young is already staggering at the polls; this is yet another body blow against him.

I also watched Frank Murkowski melt down in 2006, and that was an equally painful sight. Both Murkowski and Young got so caught up in the system that they lost touch with the people they purported to serve. Murkowski paid a drastic price, and it now looks more and more likely that Don Young will pay a similar price. And it all is so unnecessary.

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