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The Nation

Rep. Calvert's Land of Plenty

He has earmarked funds for Riverside County projects near properties he sold for a profit.

May 15, 2006|Tom Hamburger, Lance Pugmire and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

He also has secured funds for a number of projects pushed by campaign contributors, including employees of the Washington lobbying firm of Copeland Lowery & Jacquez, his top political donor in the last election cycle.

But the most serious questions, ethics specialists say, involve Calvert's participation in real estate ventures in which his earmarks for highway and other improvements may have contributed to rising land values and created at least the appearance that he personally benefited.

Stanley Brand, a former general counsel to the House of Representatives who frequently represents lawmakers in ethics cases, said members should avoid earmarks that might be seen as self-enriching.

"I'd advise them to either sell their property interests in the immediate area or recuse themselves from any related earmarks," he said.

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.

Another ethics expert, Brett Kappel, said that any member of Congress who dealt in real estate should be especially careful in earmarking funds for projects that could be seen as providing a benefit to his holdings.

"It could be perfectly legitimate, but it raises an appearance issue when you have a member who is a property owner, and he or she earmarks funds to benefit development in an area in which the member has an ownership interest," said Kappel, who advises private-sector clients on ethics rules for the law firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease.

Kappel said that it would be helpful to a lawmaker if the project in question had been requested by a local government agency -- which is the case with the interchange project and the improvements around March airfield -- and if the member disclosed the earmark and the property holding.

Calvert issued a news release announcing the interchange, but his financial disclosure for 2005, the year of the property purchase near March airfield, at 18966 Seaton Ave., has not yet been filed.

Some lawmakers who, like Calvert, were in the real estate business before they got to Congress have cut their ties and refrain from buying any property in their districts for other than personal use.

"What gets you in as much trouble around here as a conflict is the appearance of a conflict," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who has adopted that approach.

Calvert, 52, who was first elected to Congress in 1992 and is seen as a rising figure among House Republicans, is better positioned to get earmarks than most; 69 earmarks this session would be considered large for a lawmaker who sits on neither the Appropriations nor Transportation committees. He is expected to get a seat on the appropriations panel soon, replacing the retiring Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Calvert also is a member of the House Republican Steering Committee, which selects committee chairs, and is vice chairman of the California House GOP delegation. He has a political action committee that has begun to funnel campaign contributions to House colleagues, a well-established road to greater power and influence.

Calvert's most recent financial disclosure statement, filed last May, showed that he owned eight parcels of land, most in Riverside County.

In 2004, according to the disclosure statement, he owned stock valued at between $250,001 and $500,000 in Calvert Real Properties Inc. and received dividends of between $50,001 and $100,000. The exact value of his holdings is unclear because congressional disclosure forms require members to indicate where their assets and liabilities fall within specified ranges but do not require disclosure of specific amounts.

In 2005, Riverside County property records show, Calvert and his partner, Woodrow Harpole Jr., closed on the purchase of the 4.3 acres of land near March airfield and the east end of Cajalco Road for $550,000. Calvert's real estate firm received brokerage fees from the seller, Rod Smith of Greeley, Colo., for representing both buyer and seller in the deal.

On Aug. 10, 2005, President Bush signed the highway bill that provided $8 million toward building an interchange connecting Cajalco Road with Interstate 15. A Calvert earmark in the bill provided $1.5 million to improve a section of the decommissioned Air Force base for commercial use. Several months after the bill was signed, Calvert and his partner sold the property for $985,000, a 79% increase.

The congressman and his partner said the increase in value was unrelated to the federal funding for the interchange or the air base.

Still, in a mid-2005 news statement announcing his accomplishments in the transportation bill, Calvert said the interchange would "provide efficient and direct connectivity for the March Air Reserve Base." And local property sales personnel say they refer to coming transportation improvements when marketing their real estate.

Reform advocates, such as Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, say more transparency in the process is needed -- particularly in the case of transportation earmarks that have become a specialty for Calvert and other lawmakers.

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