A number of U.S. congressmen and their families — including former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert — have personally profited from congressional earmarks they slipped into federal legislation, a FOX News documentary reveals.
The documentary, “Porked: Earmarks for Profit,” hosted by Chris Wallace, premieres Sat., May 31, at 8 p.m. EDT on FOX News Channel.
Budget earmarks became a national scandal — and a national joke — after some wasteful schemes made headlines recently: a $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, a $500,000 teapot museum in North Carolina, a $10 million extension to Coconut Road in Florida.
Many lawmakers earmark taxpayer money for projects supported by contributors to their campaigns.
But the FOX News investigation exposes a far more disturbing practice: federal lawmakers earmarking taxpayer dollars on projects that offer them not just political advantage, but personal financial gain.
The FOX documentary focuses on three current and former congressmen — two Republicans and one Democrat.
The most recognizable name is Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert, who stepped down as Speaker of the House in 2007.
In February 2004, Hastert, with partners and through a trust that did not bear his name, bought up 69 acres of land that adjoined his farm some 60 miles outside Chicago. The price was $340,000. In May 2005, Hastert transferred an additional 69 acres from his farm into the trust.
Two months later, Congress passed a spending bill into which Hastert inserted a $207 million earmark to fund the “Prairie Parkway” which, when completed, would run just a few miles from the 138 acres owned by Hastert’s trust.
After President Bush flew to Hastert’s district in August 2005 to sign the bill, Hastert and his partners flipped the land for what appeared to be a multi-million dollar profit.
Hastert declined repeated interview requests from FOX News, but on Thursday, after FOX began to promote the program, Hastert’s lawyer emailed the documentary unit producer Jason Kopp.
“As you might imagine we are very sensitive to even a suggestion, innuendo, or inference that Speaker Hastert's work on the Prairie Parkway was improper or illegal,” attorney J. Randy Evans wrote.
Click here to see the e-mail from Hastert's attorney.
“The purpose of this communication is to be clear with you that any suggestion, direct or indirect, that there was any connection between Speaker Hastert's longstanding support (which pre-dates his service in Congress) for the Praire Parkway project and his purchase of property adjoining his home (indeed, his residence) would be false and improper.”
Click here to see correspondence between FOX News and Hastert's attorney.
“Speaker Hastert has denied that the facts that you have stated are accurate,” Congressman Joe Bonner, R-AL, a member of the House Ethics and Appropriations Committees, tells FOX News’ Greg Jarrett, who did most of the field reporting for the documentary.
But Bonner added that if the allegations are true, what Hastert did was “wrong, and it would be indefensible.”
The FOX News documentary team also investigated the case of Pennsylvania Democratic congressman Paul Kanjorski, who earmarked millions of taxpayer dollars for a company run by his family.
In a startling interview, Joe Yudichak, who ran the non-profit Regional Equipment Center in Kanjorski’s district, says the congressman initially tried to bully him into helping Kanjorski direct the money to Kanjorski’s family members.
In the documentary, Yudichak recounts his conversation with Kanjorski:
“He said, ‘You’re telling me I can’t take care of my family?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m telling you, it’s gonna be done. And it’s gonna be done with you or without you.’ And he said, ‘I'll bury you. I’ll destroy you.’”
Kanjorski later earmarked more than $10 million directly to the company run by his family. The money was supposed to fund the development of new technologies to help turn around desperate coal towns and make them prosperous.
The company, Cornerstone Technologies, went bankrupt.
Harold Shobert, head of Pennsylvania State University’s Energy Institute, and a leading expert on anthracite coal, worked with Cornerstone on one project.
“It was clear that these guys were clueless as to how to do research and development,” Shobert told FOX News. “It was sort of like trying to collaborate with the cast of Looney Tunes.”
Kanjorski and his family declined repeated interview requests by FOX. But on Thursday his office also sent FOX News a statement.
“These six year old allegations have already been dismissed as false. I remain committed to the job of standing up for the middle class people of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I am proud of our efforts to bring high-tech, high-wage jobs to the area, as well as our efforts to stand up to those who want to privatize Social Security and those who oppose increasing the minimum wage. The idea that I have done anything in office to benefit myself is ludicrous on its face. My wife Nancy and I have lived in the same modest home for more than 25 years and anyone who visits us knows that we live by the same middle class values that we always have.”
Kanjorski closed by claiming, “This is a political attack by the Republican machine and nothing more.”
Click here to see the e-mail from Kanjorski's office.
Brian Gaffney, executive producer of the FOX News Documentary Unit, dismissed the charge.
“Two of the three congressmen examined in the program are Republicans,” Gaffney said. “Our producers and reporters are top-flight journalists who follow the truth wherever it leads.”
Representative Bonner of the House Ethics and Appropriations Committees declined to talk about Kanjorski’s case.
“If a member of Congress is personally benefiting, or his or her family is personally benefiting, then that may involve the Department of Justice,” Bonner tells Jarrett in the documentary. “In which case I can’t comment on it.”
The third case investigated by FOX involves Congressman Ken Calvert, R-CA, who has earmarked millions in taxpayer dollars to build roads and a transportation hub near commercial real estate properties he personally owns.
Calvert also refused to sit down with FOX News for an interview, although his staffers did call FOX producers, stating that Calvert pushed the earmarks at the request of local government authorities, and that the House Ethics Committee ruled, in effect, that it was ethical for a congressman to earmark money for a project that he’d personally benefit from — so long as others were making money, too.
That is true, but several experts told FOX that the ruling illustrates how problematic the practice is.
The ruling certainly does not sit well with Rep. Ken Flake, an Arizona Republican, one of the most tireless opponents of earmark abuse in Congress.
“I was completely floored when I heard that,” Flake tells Jarrett of the Ethics Committee’s decision. “I hope that nobody takes comfort in that ruling, because I don’t think that the Department of Justice sees it that way.”
GOP leaders, including President Bush, have told FOX News they think earmark abuse was a big reason the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006.
Earmarks have also become an issue on the presidential campaign.
Arizona senator John McCain has attacked New York senator Hillary Clinton’s proposed $1 million earmark for a museum commemorating the 1969 rock concert at Woodstock.
“My friends, I wasn’t there,” the presumptive GOP nominee said during an October Republican primary debate sponsored by FOX News. “I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time.”
In August of 1969 Senator McCain was being held captive in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, a prisoner of war camp in the North Vietnamese capital.
“Porked: Earmarks for Profit” was produced by Ed Barnes and Jason Kopp.