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Ethics Panel Says Calvert-Requested Earmark Passes Test

The House ethics committee has declared that an earmark requested by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) to build a commuter transit center near a handful of properties he owns would not be an impermissible financial conflict because any benefit to Calvert would be shared by other similarly situated landowners.

The ruling sharpens the standards that the ethics committee will use in determining whether a member has a financial interest in an earmark. Under new rules established this year, House Members must certify that neither they nor their spouse has any financial interest in any earmark the Member requests.

Calvert, who has come under fire for requesting earmarks for projects near property he owns, requested the ruling from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in a March 14 letter. Calvert included a map of seven properties he owns within two miles of a new transit center in Corona, Calif., for which the Congressman has requested a $5.6 million earmark in the 2008 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and related agencies appropriations bill. The closest of Calvert’s properties is a small office building — with parking for only three cars, his office said — less than one-tenth of a mile from the transit center.

The committee ruled in a May 3 letter that Calvert’s real estate holdings did not represent a “financial interest” in the earmark because “the Corona Transit Center project will not immediately affect the use of any of your properties or provide any other direct or unique benefits to the properties.” The committee noted that any financial benefit Calvert achieved “would be experienced as a member of a class of landholders in the vicinity of the transit Center.”

The committee also explained that in determining the impact of an earmark on a member’s real estate holding, the factors to consider include whether the real estate “would be affected uniquely or as part of a class.”

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the ethic committee “has written a loose rule” that essentially allows a Member to pursue any earmark as long as someone other than the Member benefits. “If somebody else is there and you are not the only one benefiting, then that’s OK?” Alexander asked.

Alexander suggested that the analogy would be to say that if a corporate executive engaged in insider trading to his own benefit, it would be permissible as long as other stockholders benefited as well.

“What they’ve done in this letter to Calvert is just not restrictive enough,” Alexander said. “If it is not a direct benefit to have a property across the street from a transit center, I don’t know what is.”

Calvert’s office said given the vagaries of the new House rule, the Congressman did what was expected of him — he asked the ethics committee to rule on his request, and received clearance from the committee to proceed. His request letter explained that if the committee felt he was benefiting from the earmark request, he would withdraw it.

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