Saturday, April 19, 2008

Coconut Manor. No snow, no ice. Read this - that'll make your ice water.

Justin Rood on a serious scandal that no one has noticed.

Even as more information leaks out about the latest Congressional scandal, Congress is struggling to decide how – or whether – to investigate itself.

The crux of the scandal, known as "Coconut Road," is simple: When Congress passes a law, its wording is not supposed to change before it goes to the president for his signature.

But in 2005, a rogue entry popped up in a spending bill after the House and Senate had already voted on it, but before it landed on President Bush's desk.

The entry directed $10 million to Florida authorities to build a highway interchange they didn't want, but which would open up thousands of acres to be developed. That land was owned by a major contributor to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Pursued by bloggers and a watchdog group, the source of the tiny provision – known as "Coconut Road" – has mushroomed into a full-blown scandal. The Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the matter, while Congress is debating how (and whether) to investigate how anyone could manage to pull such a fast one.

For months, no one has come forward to take credit. But this morning, unnamed members of Young's staff are quoted in the Washington Post saying that yes, unnamed committee aides for Young "corrected" the law after it had been passed by Congress. Young's office insisted that campaign donations were not the motive to make the change.

The earmarked money was always supposed to be for the interchange, but had been written as generic highway improvements, Young's spokeswoman said. So they changed it.

Mystery solved? Hardly, says Keith Ashdown, a spending watchdog whose group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, first investigated the Coconut Road earmark and took the rare step of asking the House Ethics Committee for an investigation – six months ago.

For one thing, the role of another Florida congressman, Republican Connie Mack, is unclear. Mack "disavowed any association with the earmark request," the Post reported Wednesday - yet he authored a letter at the time expressing support for the controversial interchange. He has since pushed to reverse the earmark.

"This is still a case of whodunit," said Ashdown. The identities of those involved are still unknown, he said, as well as those of anyone who may have directed the change – nor is it public knowledge what other staffers may have known about the illicit tweak.

"Other staff were involved," Ashdown said Wednesday. "We believe they didn’t intend to do wrong, but at best they were asleep at the switch. . . [but] they let this happen."

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