Of Pork And Parking

Sharyl Attkisson is the Capitol Hill Correspondent for CBS News.
Rep. Paul Kanjorski, was just trying to do something great for his hometown: He got several million federal tax dollars to build an office building in Nanticoke, Penn., so that a major business had a place to operate and bring several hundred jobs to town. It was named the Kanjorski Center. But a few years ago, the business moved out of the city-owned Kanjorski Center, leaving Nanticoke stuck paying the $15,000 a month bill for the empty building.

Kanjorski's follow up plan was to build a city-owned parking garage for the empty city-owned Kanjorski Center in hopes of attracting new tenants. Once again, he turned to federal taxpayers for help, earmarking more than $5 million for the Kanjorski Center parking garage project.

Critics say federal tax dollars aren't meant to buy economic stimulus projects for every Congressman's hometown – there isn't enough money to go around as it is. Further objections came from local officials who said Kanjorski shouldn't be able to use an earmark to force the city to build and own another liability: a parking garage. But it was the Department of Transportation that broke the news to Congressman Kanjorski: his parking garage plan was "contrary" to federal rules that say federal aid can only be used on parking garages that primarily serve mass transit.

At first, Kanjorski tried to argue that his parking garage would serve mass transit. The DOT looked into it and disagreed. The parking garage, said DOT, was clearly intended for downtown offices in the small town of about 10,000 people and was not in line with federal rules. At that point, Kanjorski argued his congressional earmark trumps the DOT's rules.

As Kanjorski's dispute with DOT plays out, the town of Nanticoke has come up with its own plan to provide parking for the Kanjorski Center without any federal tax dollars – and eventually turning over the parking to private ownership so the town is not left forever liable for its success or failure. Even so, Kanjorski is still trying to get that federal money for the parking garage – whether the town wants it or not.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.