Criminal pork?

Porkbusting got a boost yesterday when the Senate took an unprecedented action against a member of the House. Rep. Don Young’s staff edited an earmark for a project no one wanted after Congress approved the legislation, and could face criminal prosecution for the offense:

The Senate moved yesterday toward asking the Justice Department for a criminal investigation of a $10 million legislative earmark whose provisions were mysteriously altered after Congress gave final approval to a huge 2005 highway funding bill.

In what may become the first formal request from Congress for a criminal inquiry into one of its own special projects, top Senate Democrats and Republicans have endorsed taking action in connection with the earmark that Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, inserted into the legislation.

“It’s very possible people ought to go to jail,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees highway funding.

Young’s staff acknowledged yesterday that aides “corrected” the earmark just before it went to the White House for President Bush‘s signature, specifying that the money would go to a proposed highway interchange project on Interstate 75 near Naples, Fla. Young says the project was entirely worthy of an earmark and he welcomes any inquiry, a spokeswoman said.

“Congressman Young has always supported and welcomed an open earmark process. If Congress decides to take up the matter of this particular project, there will be no objection from Mr. Young,” said Meredith Kenny, his spokeswoman. Young also sponsored a $223 million measure to build the fabled “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, a project that was killed in 2005 after it sparked widespread outrage.

Memo to Young: editing an earmark after its passage is the antithesis of “an open earmark process”. It’s a way to redirect funds essentially through fraud, bypassing any oversight in Congress. Without a line-item veto, the President cannot strike it from the bill, and Congress would have to pass specific legislation to strike it once the President signed the appropriation bill.

Young, who represents Alaska, says that this project in Florida is “entirely worthy”, but that depends on definition. Local officials didn’t want the project, and have tried three times to cancel it. Unfortunately, since the money comes from a Congressional earmark, they can’t apply the funds anywhere else. However, Young got $40,000 from developers who will benefit from the highway extension at a fundraiser hosted by these same interests. In terms of campaign donations, the fraudulent earmark has certainly proven “worthy”.

The change involved transforming the earmark from general highway projects in Florida to this specific development. It took months before Young would admit that he had changed the earmark after the passage of the bill, but he claims that it had nothing to do with the $40,000 he got from the Florida developers. Young says that he always intended on making the earmark specific to this project — but for some reason corrected it only after its passage into law.

Republicans should have dumped Young years ago. This exercise in legislative fraud shows why. A criminal investigation is appropriate, and the GOP had better find someone better to represent Alaskans in 2008.