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Hastert directs millions to birthplace

Illinois Rep. Dennis J. Hastert has earmarked $24 million in grants for Aurora-based nonprofit groups since becoming speaker in 1999, using an obscure section of the big federal spending bills passed each year.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When Scott B. Palmer received an honorary degree in 2002 from his alma mater, Aurora University in Illinois, he urged the graduating class to "give back to our university, to our community and to our country."

As chief of staff to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Palmer runs a congressional office that has been able to do just that for Aurora, the birthplace of his boss and the largest city in his boss's home district.

Hastert has earmarked $24 million in grants for Aurora-based nonprofit groups since becoming speaker in 1999, using an obscure section of the big federal spending bills passed each year.

Nine months after the cap-and-gown ceremony honoring Palmer, Aurora University got $9.8 million to construct a teacher training institute. Aurora's Rush-Copley Medical Center, where Palmer is an unpaid trustee, captured a total of $5.5 million in 2002 and 2003. About $3.4 million has gone to another Aurora hospital where another member of Hastert's staff had worked.

Communities represented by powerful lawmakers have always had an edge in the scramble for federal funds. But Aurora's successful applicants have unusually close connections to members of its congressman's staff.

In addition, unlike a long line of big spenders before him -- including such masters of pork-barrel politics as the late speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) -- Hastert is a conservative Republican who favors smaller government and leaner domestic budgets. He has led the fight to enforce tough White House spending limits for the highway program and domestic spending bills, sometimes over the objections of GOP committee chairmen.

As the Bush administration applies the brakes to domestic spending, some are questioning the fairness of a system that enables powerful politicians to keep federal dollars flowing back home while districts represented by mere rank-and-file lawmakers are squeezed.

"The vast majority of [congressional] districts are getting below what they would get under any kind of a formula, and the big hogs are getting a disproportionate share," said Scott Lilly, former Democratic chief of staff on the House Appropriations Committee.

Ronald D. Bonjean Jr., Hastert's communications director, said that the section of the spending bill used by the speaker to provide most of the grants -- an account for "health care and other facilities" -- is an important part of the legislative process.

"It's a nonpartisan program that the speaker and members of the Illinois delegation in both parties work together on, helping cities and local communities provide their constituents with valuable education, health care training and services," Bonjean said.

Palmer declined to comment for this article.

Most federal funds for education, road building, health care and other services go to states and communities under formulas based on population, need or other criteria. Communities also compete for grants that are awarded on merit.

Congressional earmarking skirts both processes by letting lawmakers write funding for hometown projects directly into legislation, mainly the annual appropriations bills that keep government agencies running from year to year. In recent years, to overcome budget impasses at the end of each congressional session, GOP leaders have consolidated many of the specialized spending bills into a single "omnibus" bill containing thousands of earmarks that guarantee broad support from legislators.

GOP officials defend earmarking, saying lawmakers are better attuned to their communities than bureaucrats. "They know the needs on the ground," said John D. Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

Scofield said the committee approves only a few thousand of the more than 30,000 annual earmark requests from lawmakers. Those account for a small fraction of federal spending.

But party leaders and top committee officials have a clear edge in this process, said Keith Ashdown of the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"When you're flat-lining the amount of domestic spending that can go out under the formulas, that's when the big dogs can move themselves to the front of the line," Ashdown said.

McCain targets pork barrel
Hastert's office is one of those that has taken full advantage of this opportunity, an analysis of recent spending legislation shows. He has used earmarks to get $3.2 million for a National Guard armory in Aurora and $7.5 million for a library at Judson College in Elgin.

The funds for Judson College, which describes itself as an evangelical Christian school, were tucked into a section of the Department of Energy's appropriation for "biological and energy research." A Hastert news release explained that the library would be a "green" structure that would "cut down on fossil fuel costs and make the most of alternative natural resources."

Hastert has also made extensive use of earmarks in the "health care and other facilities" account, which in the last decade has seen runaway growth.

The account appears as a special construction fund in the budget of the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The unit runs a variety of health programs for women and children, low-income families, HIV/AIDS patients and other vulnerable groups, but until the 1990s it had little involvement with construction projects. Today it administers the transfer of funds to projects designated annually by Congress.

Although the initial impetus for the construction account came from a senior Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), who sought hospital construction funds for his state, use of the account escalated rapidly after Republicans took control of Congress in 1995.

In November, Republican and Democratic legislators inserted $484.6 million for 963 projects into the account, as part of a consolidated spending bill that ran more than 1,000 pages. The largest earmark was $20 million to build a biomedical science research center at West Virginia University, a Byrd request.

The account has brought a steady stream of taxpayer dollars back to Aurora, a rapidly growing community of 150,000. Beginning in 2000, it has contained 10 earmarks for Aurora nonprofits, including about $540,000 in last fall's spending bill for the Visiting Nurses Association of Aurora.

Aurora's $24 million accounts for about 1.7 percent of the $1.4 billion earmarked in the health resources account through 2004. An equal division of the funds among all 435 House districts would have given each about $3.2 million.

In addition to the money for Aurora University and Rush-Copley Medical Center, there was $3.4 million to purchase movable equipment for a surgical expansion at Provena Mercy Medical Center, where Hastert aide Lulu Blacksmith was manager of community outreach until three years ago.

Other Aurora-area beneficiaries have been the Aurora Primary Care Consortium, which has received $409,240, and the Visiting Nurses Association, which plans to use a total of $1.6 million directed to it by Congress over three years to build a 50,000-square-foot facility housing health clinics and offices.

In 2004, the Association for Individual Development, an Aurora-based nonprofit, received a $3.1 million earmark to build a 34,000-square-foot facility in Elgin to teach job skills to the disabled.

Worthy as the projects may be, the lengthening list of earmarks in Congress has come under fire from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). During a floor speech in 2000, he said he was "appalled" at the mounting sums being handed out for constructing facilities without a competitive process.

"I am confident there are many organizations which need financial assistance and yet are not fortunate enough to have an advocate in the appropriations process," he said.

Palmer: Speaker wants it
Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, is by all accounts the speaker's closest adviser. He has served in his post since 1987, except for a stint from 1995 to 1999 as deputy chief of staff to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). He shares a Southwest Washington townhouse with Hastert. In addition to receiving a House salary of $144,000, two campaign funds associated with Hastert paid Palmer $23,204 in consulting fees in 2003, according to his financial disclosure report.

At Aurora University, Palmer won praise as an undergraduate actor and history scholar. He graduated in 1972 but stayed on to get a business degree and serve as registrar and director of public information. Palmer left in 1984 to become marketing director of a bank and a part-time political consultant.

His honorary degree came as the university was seeking to expand a modest program that brought elementary school students to the college campus, where aspiring teachers could work with them in classrooms.

The university envisioned a more ambitious plan: a multimillion-dollar "Institute for Collaboration in Education and Health Services," to be housed in a new two-story building. The institute would "support the goals in the No Child Left Behind Act" and would "alleviate the shortages of teachers, school social workers and school nurses in the region," according to various university announcements.

Palmer was directly involved in shepherding the $10 million earmark through Congress and into the 2003 omnibus spending bill, according to one source with firsthand knowledge of the process. Palmer personally presented the request to the House Appropriations Committee staff, saying it was an item the speaker wanted, the source said. Palmer and Hastert traveled to Aurora for the announcement in February 2003. Palmer received a university medallion and was given the honorary title of "president for the day," according to the alumni publication.

In an interview, Aurora University President Rebecca L. Sherrick described Palmer as a "very important ally," but added that the university has a "strong public agenda" and works closely with state and federal officials in both parties.

Nonetheless, the project drew fire from Democrats, who contended it had little connection to health programs.

A report issued by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee charged that it violated a long-standing policy against using federal funds for school construction projects.

The health resources account was also used to designate $5.5 million to Rush-Copley Medical Center in several annual installments between 2002 and 2004, when Palmer was an unpaid member of the hospital's governing board.

Lisa Brady, vice president of strategy for the hospital, said the money has purchased surgery equipment, heart monitoring devices, lab information systems, and radiology and fetal monitoring equipment. She said she did not know whether Palmer had played a role in obtaining the funds.

Officials at Provena Hospital worked with Blacksmith and other aides in Hastert's Batavia office to get the $3.4 million for a new surgery center through the health resources program, according to Michael Meyer, the hospital's vice president of public affairs and marketing. Blacksmith attended the dedication of the facility in April, he added.

Now Provena is seeking $1.5 million for a mental health initiative. But Meyer said even when your representative is the most powerful member of the House, there are no guarantees. "It's like Yogi Berra said, you don't have it until you have it."

There is every sign that Hastert's door remains open to Aurora. On May 9, the speaker sponsored a "grant writing workshop" in the city, aimed at "helping area not-for-profit and other organizations [get] better access to federal dollars."