Roughly 100 projects in Central Florida would get funding next year under spending legislation that passed the U.S. House this summer, including $700,000 to study solar power at the University of Central Florida and $1 million to find jobs for Space Coast workers.
These earmarks, worth as much as $124 million, were inserted into appropriations bills by six Central Florida House members. Pending U.S. Senate approval, the federal dollars would fund projects from roads to research and — sometimes — steer lucrative contracts to political supporters.
About a third of the earmarks were requested by nine-term U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, whose campaign slogan “Corrine Delivers” underscores that one of her top goals is bringing federal dollars to her district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando.
Her $54.7 million in earmarks includes several projects that would benefit current or former clients of the Virginia lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay, which employs her daughter, Shantrel Brown Fields.
For example, Brown steered more than $8 million to the Jacksonville Port Authority for dredging and other maintenance projects. The port authority paid $40,000 to Alcalde & Fay this year, according to lobbyist records.
Lake County officials paid the firm at least $40,000 this year to help get federal funding for an emergency-operations center, among other projects. Brown netted an $800,000 earmark for the center, as well as $500,000 for Edward Waters College, a former Alcalde & Fay client.
Neither the firm nor Brown’s daughter returned calls. Fields is not listed as a lobbyist for the Jacksonville Port Authority or Lake County, but she did represent Edward Waters College in 2006, records show.
In a statement, Brown said, “I have not sought money for any project that was not requested by a state or local governmental entity, service provider or business in my district or the state of Florida. I am fully confident that each of the projects will provide critically needed services and create jobs.”
Still, one Washington watchdog questioned the connection. “At the very least, it creates appearance problems,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There may be an innocent explanation … but there are always questions when the kids of members become lobbyists.”
Brown’s earmarks aren’t the only ones that have raised eyebrows. U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D- Orlando, was criticized this spring for trying to direct $350,000 to the Florida Civil Rights Association, run by controversial activist J. Willie David.
The earmark was aimed at helping local homeowners avoid foreclosure proceedings but ran into problems because of David’s past — he once demanded a cut of a $1.75 million judgment for two orphans whose parents were killed when a suspect fleeing police hit their car — and a “humanitarian” award the group gave Grayson.
That project did not survive a vote. Grayson did manage to get approval for several other earmarks, including $500,000 to buy library books to help Spanish speakers learn English and $3.4 million for a “study of sugar cane as a viable alternative and reliable form of energy.”
Grayson, who could not be reached for comment, counts sugar producer Florida Crystals as one of his top contributors, with total contributions of $9,200, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. He also received $1,000 from the Florida Sugar Cane League in March.
Most of the earmarks requested by Central Florida lawmakers were bread-and-butter projects, such as $400,000 to upgrade police technology in Maitland or $250,000 to assist a youth community center in DeLand. Most were steered toward municipalities, schools or nonprofits.
The trend reflects changes in recent years to make the earmark system more transparent — a response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in which congressional officials were bribed to get earmarks inserted.
Earmarks also aren’t the only avenue to secure federal funding for projects. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R- Winter Park, snagged $40 million for Central Florida commuter rail in the transportation-spending bill, a project also supported by the White House.
One trend that has continued, however, is that the most expensive items generally were for defense spending.
Brown earmarked $5 million for Lockheed Martin to build an anti-tank missile. She has received $5,000 from the company’s political action committee since 2007.
And U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D- New Smyrna Beach, inserted a $1.2 million request to develop “soldier personal cooling systems.” The earmark is tailor-made for RINI technologies in Oviedo; its founder, Dan Rini, contributed $1,000 to Kosmas’ campaign in April.
“We will definitely be submitting a proposal,” said Rini, who added that Kosmas’ staff alerted him to the earmark when the House passed its spending measure.
Kosmas said the earmark was made to “protect our brave men and women in uniform” and had nothing to do with the campaign contribution: “There is no connection between the two. The request was made upon a need.”