Probing 'Earmark' Ethics

After a long summer recess, Congress returns to Washington Tuesday and House Republican leaders say they'll clamp down on secretly requested funding projects known as "earmarks." But CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reveals why some members of the House may be reluctant to end something that has turned routine pork barrel politics into personal profit.

When President Bush signed the 2005 transportation spending bill, it was packed with pork – loaded with $24 billion worth of "earmarks" – road construction projects often inserted anonymously by members of Congress without public hearing and little or no oversight.

Rep. Jeff Flake is leading the crusade against earmarks in Congress.

"The mother lode in terms of earmarks is the highway bill," Flake says. "It's just so easy for a member to enrich himself if he were inclined to do that."

CBS News examined the latest personal financial disclosure forms, filed annually by every member of the House. We then compared those forms with the list of more than 6,000 earmarks in the transportation bill.

Our two-month investigation flagged at least a dozen questionable earmarks – transactions that may not be illegal but are considered by some to be unethical.

"It's not just about helping their district anymore," says Keith Ashdown, who tracks earmarks for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's about really focusing on their personal wealth."

Take California Congressman Ken Calvert. In July 2005, he took credit for $8 million in improvements to an exit ramp – an earmark, he proclaimed, would streamline access to a local military base.

What Calvert didn't disclose was just two months earlier, he bought land about a mile from the base. Public records reveal that within a year, Calvert and a partner sold the land at a profit of $435,000.

Calvert denies any wrongdoing, saying the earmark was for the benefit of his district and not himself.

Then there's four-term California Congressman Gary Miller, who sits on the powerful Transportation Committee. In December 2004 he purchased a piece of land for $1.5 million from his top campaign donor – who also loaned him the money for the deal. Eight months later, Congress approved millions of dollars worth of improvements to a nearby exit ramp – an earmark overseen by Miller's committee.

In July of this year, within a day of a newspaper story raising questions about his real estate deals, Miller sold the land back to the same people he bought it from. In a statement, Miller told CBS News it was another congressman who pushed the earmark, saying he sold the property at a loss. Yet he took the unusual step to keep the sale price out of the public record.

There may be a reason for that: three sources told CBS News that despite the fire sale, Miller didn't lose money, at least on paper – selling the property for nearly $100,000 more than the purchase price.

"It's not just a legal standard of actual conflict but what the public sees as looking as if it's a conflict," says Stan Brand, a congressional ethics advisor.

But it's also what the public hears, like a comment from Congressman Ralph Regula of Ohio when he was asked what his favorite earmark was this year.

"Well that's hard to, you know that's uh, like, someone saying, 'which of your children do you love the most?' You love them all," he said.

It's a love affair that many members of this Congress have shown little interest in ending.