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Investigation Finds Members of Congress Steer Millions Close to Home

February 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A Washington Post investigation found that 33 members of Congress earmarked more than $300 million total for public projects near properties they own while 16 members sent taxpayer money to companies with connections to their close family members. Gwen Ifill and Post reporter Kimberly Kindy discuss the findings and the laws.
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GWEN IFILL: A new Washington Post investigation has found that members of Congress steer taxpayer money close to home and close to their own interests.

The report examined the records of all 535 members of Congress, tracking their use of earmarks, provisions inserted into spending bills for their home districts.

Among the findings, 33 lawmakers spent a combined $300 million on public projects within about two miles of properties they own. And 16 members used special spending provisions to give money to groups with connections to immediate family members.

Moreover, it’s all perfectly legal.

We’re joined now by one of the reporters who spent a year on the project, Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post.

Kimberly, when you started this, did you think that this was going to prove that Congress — members of Congress were feathering their own nests? And did you?

What [earmark experts] like to say . . . is that the rules are so lax, that you would have to get an earmark to remodel your kitchen in order to face an ethics charge.Kimberly Kindy, The Washington Post

KIMBERLY KINDY, The Washington Post: I don’t think that I would put it that way.

We — we just knew that there was a big disconnect between — you know, members of Congress, they have a lot of power to do things. They can pass laws. They can do ear — they can direct money to earmarks — with earmarks. And not a lot is known about their personal financial portfolio.

So, what we did was, we went way beyond the personal — the financial disclosure forms they have to file, which, frankly, are — don’t really reveal very much. And we did a very deep scrub of the existing public records, so we could get a very good sense of their financial holdings. And then we started looking at their actions and, you know, looked at the earmarks.

And I think that we were surprised to see how many were very, very close to property and how many of them ended up going to programs that in some cases their family members run.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about two examples.

One was Rep. Norm Dicks, who is from Washington State. And he’s a Democrat.

KIMBERLY KINDY: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about what you found.

KIMBERLY KINDY: Well, in that case, we’re talking about a member of Congress and his son who actually worked to create a state agency that then the son was hired to run.

And the particular circumstance here is that the member, he became chair of an appropriations committee that allowed him, gave him the power to direct millions of dollars to the cleanup of a sensitive system of waterways, Puget Sound, in the Washington State area.

So his son was in charge of a program to clean up the Puget Sound, and his father sent millions of dollars to that effort. Much of the money ended up going — what we were told by the congressman was that, this money was competed. I made sure that it was competitively bid.

But when I asked for the records, and I kept digging and kept digging and kept digging, what I found was millions of dollars that, sure, it went to the EPA, but it was — they were given to them in the form of grants where they were the only applicant, and in one case, it was an outright earmark.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go to the other side of the aisle. Rep. Hal Rogers from Kentucky also was involved in this?

KIMBERLY KINDY: Yes. He was in the first story that we did, which ran yesterday, that showed how close earmarks come to members — to members of Congress and their property.

And in this particular case, we’re talking about earmarks that went all around the area where he has a home, all around the area where he owns stock in a bank. And to give you a sense of how close it came to his property, the — there’s the driveway bib — I’m not sure how many people know what a driveway bib is, but you have the sidewalk, and then you have it — it comes down like that, right at the edge of your driveway, so you can get out.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

KIMBERLY KINDY: That was repaved with earmarks that he secured.

So that’s how close it got to his property.

GWEN IFILL: So, when you tried to decide — after going through all these public records pretty exhaustively, how did you decide what the cutoff was about what was too close?

KIMBERLY KINDY: Well, that’s a good question.

I mean, what we looked at was — there were very few that we included unless they were within two miles. And so we’re talking about dozens and dozens more that had things within five miles. We looked at whether or not there was a broad public benefit. We certainly weighed that.

But if there was going to be a great benefit to the member because they had a property a few blocks away or they had a property a mile away, they made it into the project. So we looked at proximity. We looked at the broader benefit, and then we looked at, you know, how much it might be beneficial to the member.

But those — that judgment call wasn’t a big thing.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

KIMBERLY KINDY: We really were like — the financial disclosure system, it’s supposed to show you exactly what a member’s assets are and how that intersects with their finances. And it doesn’t.

GWEN IFILL: But — well, exactly, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY KINDY: We did that.

GWEN IFILL: So, you went and you looked in county records, you looked in property records . . .

KIMBERLY KINDY: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: . . . all public records.

KIMBERLY KINDY: Right.

GWEN IFILL: And, in finding all this out, did you also discover whether any of these lawmakers went to the Ethics Committee and said, hey, is this okay?

KIMBERLY KINDY: We did.

We asked that question. And the thing that is another very revelatory thing that we found out in this process is, the rules that they have set for themselves are so lax and permissive, this is perfectly acceptable. They go to them and they ask, hey, is it okay? And they say, yeah, it’s okay, because, under the rules, unless you are a sole beneficiary of an earmark, it’s perfectly permissible under the rules.

So, earmark experts, what they like to say — and there are people who have been studying this, you know, like, for a decade. They haven’t done a systematic scrub like we have done, but they know how it works. And what they say is that the rules are so lax, that you would have to get an earmark to remodel your kitchen in order to face an ethics charge.

GWEN IFILL: Wow. It would have to be right under your own roof.

Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post, thanks for your work.

KIMBERLY KINDY: Thank you very much for having me.