BOSTON — The Washington Post reported on 47 members of Congress who have obtained earmarks for their states or their districts that could be construed as benefiting them or their families. Three Massachusetts congressmen are on the list: John Olver, of Amherst; John Tierney, of Lynn; and Stephen Lynch, of Boston.
WBUR's Fred Thys joined All Things Considered Tuesday to discuss the earmarks and to talk about how people in Massachusetts are defending them.
Sacha Pfeiffer: Let's tick through each of these congressmen and their specific earmarks and why they're potentially controversial. Let's start with Olver. He funded an improvement of Route 116 in Amherst. Where's the potential conflict of interest there?
Olver obtained $5 million in funding for the project. He lives 200 feet from it. I spoke to former Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi about the earmark and Olver. He didn't remember anything about funding for the road, but here's what he said about Olver:
Honestly, anyone who knows John Olver knows that a charge that he would make a decision like that based on personal interest doesn't know the man. It's just not him.
The Post reports that Rep. Tierney obtained $3.5 million for a parking garage for the Salem commuter rail station. Where's the potential conflict of interest there?
Tierney owns a fourth of a small office building about half-a-mile from the station. So the idea there is that this economic development is good for Salem and so it could be good for the property value of Tierney's building. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll sees no conflict of interest:
No, it really is nuts, Fred. This is clearly a case of a congressman meeting a city's needs and one of our highest priorities.
I should point out that Aloisi was the last secretary of transportation to push the federal government for this project. And he told me that the money for public transportation is so scarce these days, that he really doesn't care how it came about, whether it came about through some program or whether it had to be gotten by earmarks.
He also points out that there was also funding for the Beverly commuter rail station, which is also in Tierney's district, and obviously Tierney has no potential conflict of interest there.
The third congressman on the Post's list is Lynch. It seems here that the potential conflict is possibly more clear, which is that he obtained $2 million in funding for the South Boston Community Health Center, which I understand one of his relatives has a connection to.
Yes, that's right. Lynch's wife works for the center. But the congressman points out that her salary came from the general funds in the center's budget, still comes from the general funds, and this money is for a program to prevent teenagers from becoming addicted to drugs.
How do the congressmen themselves, if you've been able to talk to them, address this issue of how taxpayers might look at this?
I was able to talk to Lynch about this, and I asked him if a taxpayer might question why the health center where his wife works is the one that's getting the funding, and not, say, another health center in Dorchester. And he points out that this funding came because 14 boys in South Boston had committed suicide, and so there was a particular problem with substance abuse in South Boston:
Even though it was meant to address a local problem, we receive many young people into the program and who are benefiting from this earmark from all over the state. Because it is federal money, they have to accept all comers, and anyone who needs it and may have nowhere else to turn, that's who they help.
In these three cases, everybody seems to be coming to the defense of the three members of Congress for doing what's good for their communities. And nobody I talked to — in state government, or involved with the teenagers in South Boston, or in the city government in Salem — seemed to have anything critical of the way that this money was obtained. And everyone I spoke to played down the potential for a conflict of interest.
Despite the sympathetic voices you heard from, is there any sense that the Post reporting will spur any kind of formal inquiry into these earmarks?
I doubt very much that it'll be from these three earmarks here in Massachusetts. There may have been some more egregious cases in other parts of the country.
I did speak to Pam Wilmot of Common Cause in Massachusetts, and she pointed out that this all does raise the issue of transparency, meaning that it might be a good idea for members of Congress to declare that their spouses or family members work for potential beneficiaries of earmarks, or that they own property not far from where a road is going to be improved, or a commuter rail station garage is going to be built.
So for now, our readers, I think, are left to decide whether this is just the political process or politically distasteful.
This program aired on February 7, 2012.