Palin's Record on Pork: Less Sizzle than Reported

But She Was Still a Defender of Winning Federal Funds


September 10, 2008

Just how many earmarks did Sarah Palin bring her hometown as mayor? The answer isn't quite as straightforward as the widely cited $27 million figure.

Though vice presidential candidate Palin has championed her record to "end the abuses" of earmark spending in Congress, she has hardly shied away from raking in federal funds, first as mayor and most recently as governor. But a review by ABC News of the earmarks watchdog groups have attributed to Palin paints a more complicated picture of her involvement in bringing federal money both to the city and the state.

Among the findings:

* Sarah Palin was not involved in winning two of the three earmarks to the Wasilla area that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized as a waste of federal spending.

Instead those two of those earmarks – one for an agricultural processing facility and another for federal road improvements – were lobbied by and went to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, akin to the county that includes Wasilla, according to borough and current and former city officials. "The city of Wasilla had nothing to do with it," said John Duffy, manager for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

* The city of Wasilla received far fewer federal earmarks than the $27 million figure but determining exactly how many earmarks Wasilla received under Palin depends on how you count the numbers.

The initial figures on Palin's earmarks came from Taxpayers for Common Sense, whose press release state that she "helped get nearly $27 million in earmarked federal funding."

But the city government, under Palin, only directly received about a third of those funds – $7.95 million between 2000 and 2003 – interviews and city records show show. About $18.4 million went to the borough or private entities, some of which the city supported through resolutions, even if it did not request the money itself.

* While Palin continued to ask for earmarks as governor, she reduced requests from $350 million by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski in fiscal year 2007 to $197 million in fiscal year 2009, according to John Katz, Washington D.C-based director of state-federal relations for Alaska.

In a Mar. 5 op-ed piece in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Palin defended her requests for earmarks, arguing that Congress "has the constitutional responsibility to put its mark on the federal budget, including adding funds that the president has not proposed."

Indeed, Palin is hardly the only candidate involved in earmark gathering. Both Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and vice presidential candidate Joseph Biden made significant earmarks during their tenure in the Senate. Last year alone, Obama secured $98 million earmarks and Biden obtained $85 million, according to a tally by Taxpayers for Common Sense based on newly required disclosures.

Wasilla first hired a lobbyist in 2000, according to lobbying disclosure records, turning to Steven Silver, a former staffer to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), who was already representing the nearby borough, Matanuska-Susitna. (Silver did not respond to a message left at his office.)

"We just piggy backed theirs," said Don Bennett, who served on the Wasilla City Council from 1998 to 2001. And as he saw it, there was little opposition to the idea of getting more federal funds. "If there was a way of getting money, everyone was involved."

Progress was slow but the results soon became clear. In fiscal year 2000 -- which is based on requests made in 1999 -- the city received $1 million for a new bus facility with the borough's bus company, Matanuska-Susitna Community Transit (MASCOT). By fiscal year 2002 the 5,500-person town brought in $1 million for a regional emergency dispatch center, $1.5 million in water and sewer improvements and $2.5 million for a road project, current and former city officials and annual city audit reports show. The 2003 fiscal year also proved fruitful, even if the money did not arrive until after Palin was out of office. There was another $750,000 for the regional dispatch center, $900,000 for a new train or bus stop at the Wasilla airport and $800,000 for airport improvements, according to current and former city officials.

"As the fastest growing area of the state for many years infrastructure was in need of expansion to keep up with the demand for services," John Cramer, former city administrator under Palin, said in an emailed response to questions from ABC.

But several other projects attributed to Wasilla in those years are not listed in the city's financial audits and interviews with city officials and the organizations appear to show that the city was not directly involved.

* The $500,000 earmark in 2001 to Life Quest Community Mental Health Center was separate from the city, said Maryalice Larson, CEO of the center, now called Mat-Su Health Services. She said that the center never lobbied for money but applied for a three-year $500,000 grant to do education and research on co-occurring disorders through the federally funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The program, she said, lasted until 2004.

Though the money may have appeared to be a grant because it came through the agency, Tom Schatz, president of Citizen Against Government Waste said, "it would still nonetheless be an earmark because of how they appear in the bill."

* Similarly, the $500,000 earmark in 2001 for a transitional living center at Kids are People Inc. was done without the city. "She [Palin] would have had absolutely nothing to do with it," said Naomi Pigner, the former operations director of the now-defunct social services nonprofit. Instead, she said, the organization reached out to an aide to Sen. Stevens, who had them apply for a grant. She said the money came over a five year period.

Several other earmarks attributed to Wasilla did not come from the city government, officials and documents show, but came with support from the city.

* The $15 million commuter railroad earmark in 2001 went directly to the Alaska Railroad Corporation, said Tim Thompson, a company spokesperson. And while the Wasilla City Council voted on several resolutions in support of the rail funds, Thompson said he was unaware that the city did any lobbying to aid their effort.

While Wasilla officials say the city was not involved, a Wasilla City Council resolution from 2002 shows that the city was very supportive of the railroad's efforts to seek federal funding, in that instance, in the hopes that it would relocate the railroad track outside of downtown Wasilla.

* Who received the $600,000 earmark in 2002 attributed to a bus facility in Wasilla isn't entirely clear. The executive director of MASCOT, Louis Friend said the money went directly to the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1999.

Friend said the organization did not hire a lobbyist to get the money and used the funds to bring the bus company's administrative and maintenance work into one building in Wasilla. That office opened in in May 2006. "That was a direct request from our nonprofit to our congressional delegation," he said.

However, the city's public works director, Archie Giddings, wrote in a memo sent to ABC News that the earmark went to the city. What's more a Wasilla City Council resolution in June 2002 shows the city supported the project, so much so that it approved a $13,000 appropriation to help MASCOT win another matching grant for the facility.

Some watchdog groups would not count these funds as Wasilla earmarks. But Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense said that even if Palin wasn't directly involved, the figure accurately measures the amount of federal earmarks that benefited the Wasilla area. "Earmarks don't happen in local officials jurisdictions that they don't want," he said. "It's a distinction without a difference."

Part of the challenge with coming up with a complete tally is that there are limited disclosures for earmarks, Ellis said. Congress is not required to explain who asked for an earmark. And until this year, Congress was not required to say which member requested an earmark.

And while he couldn't directly tie Palin to each project, Ellis said, "I think we have tried to report this as accurately as possible and we will continue to update this."

Whatever the total amount of earmarks Wasilla received under Palin, not everyone was happy with all of the projects. In 2002, McCain listed the regional emergency dispatch center on his annual release of wasteful federal earmarks.

Taylor Griffin, McCain spokesperson said in an emailed statement that Palin was merely working in a system already "addicted to earmarks. "For many Alaska towns such as Wasilla, earmarks were a way of life and the only method of funding critical needs. But from this experience, Sarah Palin also realized that Alaska must break its dependence."

Local officials defend the project, which evolved after a major fire in 1996 burned down 300 homes in the borough. Ken Slauson, former chairman of the board of supervisors for the Wasilla-Lakes Fire Service Area said: "If I had to make a ranking of where you get your most bang for your buck, I think public safety is right up there."

Similarly, Duffy, the borough manager, defended the two other borough projects McCain criticized.

The first was a $450,000 earmark in for an agricultural processesing facility intended to make locally grown vegetables useable by the school district's student meals, Duffy said. The idea was part of a larger effort to improve the quality and healthiness of the school meals, he said. It came at a time when the borough was rebuilding the school district's kitchen to create a facility to process local vegetables to use in school lunches. The earmarked money was used to do a feasibility study but the bororugh hasn't gotten enough funding yet for construction.

The second $500,000 federal land earmark was meant to make improvements to roads going to federal lands. Duffy said the borough used that money and that there was no way Wasilla would have ever applied for the grant because it had no federal lands.

"They provide needed funds for important infrastructure projects," Duffy said.

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