Tracing Taxpayers' Money To "Noah's Ark"

ark, playground, attkisson
With decaying bridges and crumbling highways sorely underfunded, Congress somehow found the money in last year's transportation budget to help build a boat that won't take you anywhere.

"To me, the ark is a community," Uri Herscher tells CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

The ark is actually a children's play park, and Herscher its Noah. He heads up the Skirball Cultural Center, a private charity in Los Angeles.

Herscher asked Congressman Henry Waxman for federal tax dollars to help build the ark. Waxman replied by giving the ark money through a special earmark in, of all things, the transportation budget. An earmark is a grant of money made without the normal public review.

"The amount of money that the Skirball got for this project was very, very small. It was $550,000," says Rep. Waxman, D-Calif.

A half million dollars may be small change to members of Congress, but it's real money to most Americans. And you're picking up the tab for billions of dollars in earmarks like that every year.

Congressman Jeff Flake says the tax dollars in the transportation budget would be better spent on the nation's urgent transportation needs.

Attkisson Blogs: Noah's Ark
"I mean, we have an example recently of a bridge collapsing, and we have too little money going to critical items in the transportation bill like bridges or highways, and instead it's bled off to other things," says Rep. Flake, R-Arizona.

What's more, the Skirball Center -- a complex of buildings -- hardly seems a needy case.

According to its most recent IRS filings from 2005, it's managed by executives earning six-figure salaries, has a more than $8 million payroll and boasts financial books that might be the envy of most any charity: $885 million in gross receipts (that's just for one year) and a $100 million endowment.

"They have over $200 million in net assets. Is that an organization that really needs the helping hand of federal taxpayers?" Attkisson asked.

"It's going to serve a very important interest in education in culture in the arts, teaching values to children," says Waxman. "I think that's well worth the money."

It's definitely been worth it to the Skirball Center. Noah's Ark has been bringing in $16,000 in ticket sales per week since it opened last June. And no, taxpayers don't get a cut.

If you look carefully, you can see the hint of a rainbow that appears and fades at Noah's Ark. There's no pot of gold at the end… just your tax dollars.