Highway bill seeks Justice Department probe

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

WASHINGTON - The House on Wednesday sent a highway bill to President Bush with a request to the Justice Department that it investigate how one project slipped into a past bill without a vote by lawmakers.

The legislation, passed 358-51, made mostly technical corrections that have held up initiation of nearly 400 projects included in a $286 billion highway and infrastructure bill passed in 2005. But it was one project, the Coconut Road Interchange in southwest Florida, that attracted much of the attention.

The original 2005 bill, as approved by the House and the Senate, included $10 million to widen I-75 in Florida's Collier and Lee counties, one of some 6,200 special projects, or earmarks, in the legislation. But the final version of the measure sent to Bush for his signature was changed to redirect that money to the Coconut Road Interchange in Lee County.

Watchdog groups pointed to then House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, as the source of the change, and said one of the prospective backers of the Coconut Road project had held a fundraiser for Young in 2005.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a leading critic of earmarks, demanded an investigation, and the Senate, when it passed the highway corrections bill on April 17, directed the Justice Department to investigate whether criminal laws were broken when the project was inserted into the 2005 act after the final vote.

Young, in a speech on the House floor, defended the project, saying he had traveled to Florida and listened to many people who supported the widening of the ramp at Coconut Road to provide better access to shelter during hurricanes.

He stressed that the money was for a study and went to the state of Florida, not any one person. "I have been the subject of much innuendo concerning my intent and motivation," he said.

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