Earmark disclosures highlight need for stronger conflict of interest enforcement

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  • Dale Eisman

Congress should rewrite and toughen its financial disclosure and conflict of interest rules in the wake of a report today that nearly three dozen lawmakers secured more $300 million in public works projects and other aid on real estate near their own or for companies, colleges or groups linked to their spouses and relatives, Common Cause said.

“I’m reminded again of the old saying that scandal in Washington isn’t what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal, said Bob Edgar, president and CEO of the non-profit government watchdog group. “The earmarks spotlighted in today’s report appear for the most part to be for projects that serve the public interest, but it’s disgraceful that those projects could be approved without a thorough examination of their impact on the private interests of the members backing them,” Edgar said, referring to a report in the Washington Post.

Among the earmarks uncovered were a $6.3 million beach replenishment project just 900 feet from a vacation home owned by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-GA, and $100 million in renovations to downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., sponsored by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, who owns a commercial building there. The report also detailed a $21.5 million earmark obtained by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid for a bridge connecting Laughlin Nev. with Bullhead City, Ariz., where Reid owns a piece of undeveloped property, and numerous earmarks obtained by lawmakers for colleges and firms that employ members of their families.

“The connections between members and these earmarks would not have come to light without investigative reporting,” Edgar said, “But rather than relying on journalists to root out such spending – after the fact – we need laws that require full public disclosure of how each proposed earmark might impact the holdings and personal finances of the sponsor and his or her relatives. And of course, when members fail to disclose, they must be held accountable.”