TPM News

So now the Senate has agreed on an amendment that will require the Justice Department to investigate Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) Coconut Road earmark.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaking earlier today said that she thinks the House ethics committee ought to get on the case. She also objected to Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) solution of a bicameral panel, saying "We have an ethics committee. I don't see why that would be necessary."

Yeah, why would that be necessary?

If only a nonpartisan watchdog had filed an ethics committee complaint back in September, then maybe all this noise and Constitutional debate wouldn't be necessary in the Senate. Oh, wait. Taxpayers for Common Sense did file a complaint. And nothing has happened. Because that's what the House ethics committee is best at.

"A lot of air in the Senate has been wasted today because the ethics committee isn't doing its job," Taxpayers for Common Sense's Keith Ashdown told me. "We'll hear the announcement of the ethics committee investiagation as soon as the Justice Department announces that they're indicting Don Young."

The House ethics committee does indeed have a knack for opening investigations of members who are already under investigation by the Justice Department. It's a neat trick, because after opening the investigation they declare that they can't investigate because it would interfere with the Department's investigation.

As expected, Democrats, with few exceptions, just united to defeat Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) solution of creating a bicameral panel to investigate Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) Coconut Road earmark.

The final vote was 49 for and 43 against. That's far short of the 60 votes needed to pass.

Update: Here's the roll call for that vote.

Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) amendment just passed by a margin of 63 to 29. Virtually all Senate Democrats supported the measure, helped by a good number of Republicans.

The amendment requires a review by the Department of Justice into the allegations of impropriety regarding Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) Coconut Road earmark and an investigation into whether the change broke the law.

Immediately after the vote, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who voted against the amendment, called the vote an "amazing precedent" set to invite the "Justice Department to investigate a House rules violation."

The Senate is now moving on to Coburn's solution -- a joint House-Senate investigation. Sen. Boxer declared that such an investigation would "bring the whole bill down" because of Constitutional objections by Democrats in both the House and the Senate.

Update: Here's the roll call for that.

In just a couple minutes, the Senate will hold votes on how Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) extra-Constitutional earmark ought to be investigated.

The two options, both offered as amendments to a highway technical corrections bill, are the ones I laid out yesterday.

Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) preferred solution is an investigation by a joint committee of both House and Senate lawmakers with subpoena power.

Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) amendment would direct the Justice Department to review the earmark and investigate whether Young's extra-Constitutional earmark broke the law.

Both will need 60 votes in order to pass according to the deal struck between the parties. Why the high vote threshold?

The Democrats have come hard down on Boxer's side of the discussion, saying that Coburn's solution would result in the unconstitutional situation of members of the Senate investigating the House. Speaking on the floor just now, Sen. Boxer said that the House leadership has made it known that they have strong objections to the measure that might prevent the bill from passing.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans have let it be known that they really don't like the idea of asking the Justice Department to investigate.

So we'll see what happens with the voting. The high threshold could very well mean that neither amendment passes.

If neither of these measures pass, Boxer says that she favors sending a strongly worded letter to the Justice Department as a consolation measure.

Sure, Karl Rove would looooove to testify to Congress about his role in the Don Siegelman prosecution, his lawyer told MSNBC. So the House Judiciary Committee is following up. From the AP:

The House Judiciary Committee is taking Karl Rove up on an offer to testify about claims that he influenced a federal corruption case against former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama.

The committee on Thursday asked former White House adviser Rove to appear under oath soon. The panel also wants the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate allegations that political motivations drove the Siegelman case and several other federal prosecutions during the Bush administration.

Rove has denied any involvement in the Siegelman prosecution. His attorney told MSNBC earlier this month that Rove would testify on the matter.

Among the many problems in Iraq, officials there have decided seat belt laws are lax and will now crackdown on offenders. Add that to the other distractions while on the morning commute. (New York Times)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) was found to have misreported over $440,000-worth of campaign donations and spending. Blackburn blamed the discrepancies on a credit card company that she claims botched online donations and inexperienced workers who didn't know how to properly record contribution checks with the FEC. (The Tennessean)

Pentagon documents reveal the 2003 prisoner abuse of Afghan detainees at the Gardez Detention Facility. Among other abuses, prisoners were forced to kneel outside in wet clothing while they were hit repeatedly if they moved. (Associated Press)

Read More →

Relax, defenders of the Constitution! They were only fixing a mistake.

Since last August, we've been trying to figure out how Rep. Don Young (R-AK) managed to change the language in a bill after it cleared both houses of Congress. Now we've finally got a little bit of clarity -- Young's staff has finally fessed up to making the change. What remains unclear, however, is whether Young told them to do it.

It was no mystery that Young himself was responsible for the earmark, which provided $10 million to build an I-75 interchange at Coconut Road in Lee County, Florida. Local officials had sought money for a more general project to widen the highway, but real estate developer Daniel Aronoff knew the way to get things done. He held a $40,000 fundraiser for Young in Florida.

Why Young? He was the chairman of the House transportation committee back in 2005 and so the man to go to for an earmark that hadn't managed the support of local officials or lawmakers. It didn't really matter that Florida was about as far from Alaska in the United States that you can get.

So while it's been no mystery that Young was responsible for the earmark, just how he managed to buck the constitutional process for lawmaking hasn't been clear. Back in August, we plowed into the 800-page 2005 bill to see whether there had been any other substantial changes. We found that out of approximately 6,370 earmarks, Young's had been the only to undergo such a change.

But Young refused to discuss it. Taxpayers for Common Sense filed a complaint with the House ethics committee, and still he remained mum.

Finally, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) was successful in pushing for an investigation of the earmark. The Senate is likely to vote today and pass a measure by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that will refer the matter to the Justice Department for investigation.

And today, after debate raged for hours in the Senate on the best way to investigate Don Young, he's finally fessing up - sort of.

Young himself didn't make the change, his staff tells The Washington Post:

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....

Young's office accepted responsibility yesterday for the change, insisting that campaign contributions were not the motive. Rather, presentations made by Florida Gulf Coast University officials and the developers proved the case for the project, aides said.

[Meredith] Kenny, Young's spokeswoman, said the lawmaker always intended for the earmark to designate money to the interchange project, not generic highway improvements. So committee aides altered the bill to reflect that after the House and Senate had approved it.

"There was an error in the bill and so it was corrected," she said.

Now, in our pass through the earmark-laden transportation bill, we did find that plenty of "errors" in the bill had indeed been corrected -- by which I mean misplaced commas, typos, etc. But none of those "corrections" changed the projects themselves.

And of course this statement doesn't answer the big question: whether one of Young's staffers might have made such a change to the bill without asking the boss. Because (hopefully) it's not every day at the office that a staffer changes the language of legislation after it passes Congress.

It's a cause that has united lawmakers from right and left alike. How did Rep. Don Young (R-AK) manage to insert an earmark that benefited a campaign contributor after the bill had cleared both houses of Congress?

Where the two sides differ is in how that investigation should take place.

To review the circumstances of Young's extra-Constitutional wizardry: Young, then the chairman of the House transportation committee, inserted a $10 million earmark to widen I-75 in Florida's Collier and Lee Counties in the 2005 bill. The project was supported by local officials. That was the version passed by Congress. But because of Young's unique position, he was able to make a crucial change: the bill later signed by the President had different language, directing the $10 million to an I-75 interchange at Coconut Road. That project had been opposed by local officials, but aggressively backed by real estate mogul Daniel Aronoff, who'd thrown a $40,000 fundraiser for Young that year.

Back in December, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) began pushing for an investigation of Young's extra-Constitutional wizardry. And his preferred solution is an investigation by a joint committee of both House and Senate lawmakers with subpoena power.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), meanwhile, has offered an amendment that would direct the Justice Department to review the earmark and investigate whether Young's extra-Constitutional earmark broke the law.

Both approaches are likely to come up for a vote on the Senate floor either tonight or tomorrow morning. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) favors Boxer's approach. Why? Well, Jim Manley, his spokesman, called Coburn's approach "blatantly unconstitutional" because it would involve one house investigating another house of Congress. You might call that ironic.

Coburn spokesman John Hart, meanwhile, said that Boxer's amendment might lead to nothing, since Coburn didn't believe that Congress had the power to "tell the Justice Department what to do." But he stressed that Coburn was pleased that everyone agrees that Young's earmark should be investigated.

It's also worth mentioning that the FBI is already reportedly investigating the earmark as a possible bribe.

What is clear is that whatever solution emerges, it's more likely to get results than the House ethics committee.

Back in September, the non-partisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense filed a complaint with the House ethics committtee about the change. But as expected, the infamously inert committee has done nothing.

And what does Don Young think about all this?

Read More →

Earlier this month, NPR reported that the Justice Department inspector general's sprawling investigation into politicization at the Department included a probe of whether Monica Goodling had fired an attorney because she'd heard a rumor that the lawyer might be gay.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and ranking member Arlen Specter (R-PA) earlier this week, the inspector general Glenn Fine confirmed that his office was digging into such accusations.

It's still anybody's guess when that investigation, which Fine is conducting along with the Office of Professional Responsibility, will conclude. It launched more than a year ago, during the heat of the U.S. attorney scandal.

In an open letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan today, more than two dozen Pennsylvania public figures urged that the Justice Department "reconsider the publicly announced decision to re-try De. Cryil Wecht." You can see the letter here.

Among the signers are Melissa Hart, a former Republican congresswoman who lost reelection in 2006, Jerry Johnson, the U.S. Attorney for Pittsburgh during the Reagan administration, and both the former and current chair of the Republican Party in Allegheny County. The signers also include a number of members of the Allegheny county council and the Democratic former mayor of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy. The Wecht case is based on allegations that Wecht misused county resources while serving as coroner there.

Given that the jury hung in the first trial and jurors have told the media that most of them had agreed on acquittal, the signers agree that a second trial "would certainly not be in the interest of justice."

It's just the latest bit of pressure put on prosecutors. Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Mike Doyle (D-PA) have already expressed their concern that prosecutors used FBI agents to contact jurors who served on the case. Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, a Republican, also criticized that decision. And that's on top of the scrutiny the case has had for months.

Today, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that prosecutors are pondering shopping for an out-of-town jury for the retrial because of negative media coverage of the case.