Hastert accused of profiting from earmarks

John Dimsdale Jun 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: You call it the death tax. They call it the estate tax. But Congress called almost the whole thing off today. The House passed sharp cuts to the estate tax this afternoon. The Senate still has to vote but people who know say only about 5,100 people would have to pay up when the time comes.

The Speaker of the House, meawhile, is in the news today. Dennis Hastert is defending his sale of some land in Illinois. Land that made him big money. A watchdog group says the value of Hastert’s property shot up after Congress promised hundreds of millions of dollars to build a highway nearby. The money was what’s called an earmark. Put into last year’s transportation bill by Representative Hastert, Republican of Illinois. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale has the story.

JOHN DIMSDALE: According to the Sunlight Foundation, Hastert bought the property in Kendall County, Illinois, in 2002. Three years later, President Bush signed the transportation funding bill which included money to build a highway within six miles of Hastert’s land. Four months later, Hastert sold the property, netting a $2 million profit.

Keith Ashdown at Taxpayers for Common Sense calls the land deal “fishy” because the Speaker quietly inserted the highway money at the last minute.

KEITH ASHDOWN: What we see here is a very powerful lawmaker, during the debate on the transportation bill, adding, behind closed doors in the dead of night, $207 million for a project that he said his district needed, but he at the time did not tell us that he also is likely profiting from.

The Speaker’s press secretary, Ron Bonjean, says his boss’s profit from the land sale was typical of the area and not influenced by the federal highway grant.

RON BONJEAN: Kendall County is the second fastest growing county in the nation. The land values have been skyrocketing for the past six years. Farmers have been selling land like crazy because of its rising value. The Speaker sold his land because he did not need it.

The Speaker’s lawyer is demanding that the Sunlight Foundation withdraw its accusation, threatening unspecified “remedies.” The Foundation has not done so, but the Speaker’s spokesman says he knows of no plans for legal action.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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