May 1, 2008 Update: The House voted 358-51 yesterday to agree to the Senate's demand for a federal criminal investigation of the $10 million earmark. Young defended his actions, claiming "these accusations have little, if any, connection with what actually occurred," but eventually joined many of his colleagues in voting for the bill to "clear this up once and for all."
Alaska Republican Don Young, currently under fire for possibly illegal earmarking for a project near Naples, Florida, was one of Congress’s most frequent fliers, racking up more than $20,000 in special-interest sponsored travel to the Sunshine State over a five-and-a-half-year period.
In a rare move that targets a sitting member of Congress, the Senate voted 64-28 Thursday to ask the Department of Justice to investigate a $10 million earmark added by Representative Young’s staff, after the legislation was already approved by Congress.
The earmark, which called for funding a highway interchange project, was reportedly changed to benefit real estate developer Daniel Aronoff in Florida, 3,000 miles or more from Young’s district. Aronoff, who had tried for years to go ahead with the development project, raised $40,000 for the congressman’s campaign in 2005.
An analysis of congressional travel records by the Center for Public Integrity shows that Young was a frequent jetsetter before this year’s travel reforms, taking $83,706.95 worth of trips — 21 excursions in all since 2000. These include trips sponsored by the National Rifle Association to Greensboro, North Carolina, as part of a speaking tour, as well as his most expensive venture to San Diego for about $8,950, which was sponsored by Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Inc., an Alaska-based shipper. Young also traveled to Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, for “fact finding” at the Hubbard Museum of the American West — a trip that cost $1,483, for which no sponsor is listed.
Of these 21 trips, seven were to Florida, ranging in cost from $1,050 to about $5,863. Among the list of sponsors are several interest groups, including the Association of American Railroads, American Maritime Officers, and the American Federation of Labor – Council of Industrial Organizations. All totaled, these seven jaunts cost $20,388.60.
Young’s office, including his staff, was one of only a few Congressional offices to accept more than 200 trips and more than $350,000 in travel during the January 2000 through June 2005 period covered by the study.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, told the Center that these trips provide special interest organizations the opportunity to build face time and a personal relationship with a policy maker. “This gives them a leg up on everyone else in terms of access,” she said. Instead of giving money to buy votes, which is illegal, “it’s more common that money is given and access is bought.”