Thursday, June 22, 2006

Less than meets the eye

Congressional corruption is a hot topic, but these seem to be more smoke than fire:

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) made a $2 million profit last year on the sale of land 5 1/2 miles from a highway project that he helped to finance with targeted federal funds.

A Republican House member from California, meanwhile, received nearly double what he paid for a four-acre parcel near an Air Force base after securing $8 million for a planned freeway interchange 16 miles away. And another California GOP congressman obtained funding in last year's highway bill for street improvements near a planned residential and commercial development that he co-owns.

I'm all for scrutinizing lawmaker finances, and earmarks are a growing problem. But the connections here seem tenuous at best. For instance:

Arthur C. Zwemke, a Robert Arthur partner whose company plans to build a 1,635-home residential and commercial development on the site, scoffed at assertions that the Prairie Parkway had boosted the value of Hastert's land. The price for the land had been locked up in 2004 by land speculator Ron March, who then ceded the project to Robert Arthur Land, he said. The price, he added, could not have risen with the news of the Prairie Parkway funding. Besides, the parkway is still years from construction, he noted, and land prices are soaring as Chicago's sprawl moves ever westward.

The California airbase case is a little stronger, because even if Rep. Ken Calvert's gains were "in line with rising property values," one reason the property values were rising was because of his earmark. It's Congressional insider trading. So look more closely at that one.

The third case, involving Rep. Gary Miller, seems as weak as Hastert's:

Miller, the other California Republican, helped secure $1.28 million in last year's highway bill for street improvements near a planned residential and commercial development in Diamond Bar, Calif., that he co-owns with a top campaign contributor.

Kevin McKee, a Miller spokesman, said the road improvement was a mile away from the development and had been designated by Diamond Bar officials as their top priority.

Scrutinize Congress? Fine. But care must be taken to avoid turning a concern about corruption into a witchhunt. Congressmen live (well, maintain a residence) in their district, and bring federal money home to their district. That almost inevitably leads to federal money being spent near places that the Congressman may have a financial interest in. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Watchdogs must meet a higher standard of proof than simply pointing out those geographical facts.

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