WASHINGTON — Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) is an experienced investor in Riverside County's booming real estate market, so he's used to seeing prices change quickly. Last year, he and a partner paid $550,000 for a dusty four-acre parcel just south of March Air Reserve Base. Less than a year later, without even cutting the weeds or carting off old septic tank parts that littered the ground, they sold the land for almost $1 million.
Even for a speculator like Calvert, it was an unusually good deal.
During the time he owned the land, Calvert used the legislative process known as earmarking to secure $8 million for a planned freeway interchange 16 miles from the property, and an additional $1.5 million to support commercial development of the area around the airfield.
A map of Calvert's recent real estate holdings and those of his partner shows many of them near the transportation projects he has supported with federal appropriations. And improvements to the transportation infrastructure have contributed to the area's explosive growth, according to development experts.
Calvert said he had used earmarking solely to benefit his district. Those appropriations, he said, have had nothing to do with his investments or financial gains.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Rep. Calvert and freeway interchange: An article in Monday's Section A about real estate deals involving Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said the lawmaker had secured federal funds to build an interchange between Interstate 15 and Cajalco Road in Riverside County. The funds are for a major overhaul and expansion of an existing interchange. The accompanying graphic referred to the project as a proposed interchange when it should have identified it as the proposed improvement.
"Because of the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C., people are trying to manufacture controversy, even where there isn't any," Calvert said. Noting that property values have climbed throughout the Inland Empire, he added: "They haven't passed a law against investing yet.
"All my life in public service, I've never done anything to enrich myself, using the position I hold," he said.
The projects he helped fund, Calvert said, were requested by local officials. Those officials agree. Referring to the effort to commercialize the area around March airfield, Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster said Calvert had been "very active for a number of years, and in a variety of ways."
What sets Calvert's actions apart from the traditional efforts of lawmakers to bring federal dollars home to their districts is that some of the spending has gone for improvements near his private real estate ventures, and he has used earmarking to secure the tax dollars.
Earmarking is a practice in which some members of Congress -- primarily those in leadership positions, those on appropriations and transportation committees, and other insiders -- are allowed to insert into federal spending bills provisions that allot tax dollars for particular projects without going through the normal legislative and budgetary reviews.
Not every lawmaker is equal when it comes to being able to earmark appropriations. What counts is where members stand in the power structure, and how much favor they cultivate with more influential colleagues. Some lawmakers are allowed to insert scores of earmarks into spending bills each year. Others get few, if any.
And the process traditionally occurs behind closed doors, without public notice or hearings. Spokespeople for the House Appropriations and Transportation committees, for instance, refuse to provide information on lawmakers' earmark requests or their justifications for projects. As a result, an individual lawmaker quietly can obtain funding to help constituents, interest groups, lobbyists or even themselves.
The number of earmarks has sharply increased in recent years. Earmarks such as the $223-million "bridge to nowhere" -- connecting the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with an airport and about 50 inhabitants -- that was included in last year's highway bill have generated demands for reform.
To shed more light on the process, the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has worked to identify and analyze earmarks in recent spending bills. During the 2005-06 congressional session, Calvert put 69 earmarks into spending bills, the group reported; Calvert said he was the lead advocate for 53.
Such special funding is often decried as "pork" by spending hawks and good-government groups, but many members of Congress counter that the practice serves their constituents.
In extreme cases, manipulation of federal spending has been linked to corruption. Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) admitted taking bribes in exchange for such legislative favors. And Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia recently stepped down as the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee amid allegations that he steered federal money to nonprofit groups in his district -- organizations run by business associates who helped make him wealthy.
Earmarks also figured into the political corruption scandal centered on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In addition to earmarking funds for infrastructure, Calvert has directed money toward such things as education, university research and agriculture.