U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky finds himself at the center of the national firestorm over "pork" spending, those pet projects members of Congress fund with earmarks to major bills.
The Indiana Democrat has been identified as the sixth-biggest earmarker in the U.S. House, with $116.8 million set aside for special projects in fiscal 2008 budget bills, according to figures compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
In a CNBC interview, one Washington watchdog group accused Visclosky of pioneering "green pork," which are earmarks masquerading as seed money for environmental breakthroughs.
In his first response to numerous reports in national media, Visclosky on Friday vigorously defended his use of earmarks, while acknowledging new disclosure rules have put a spotlight on their use.
"I feel it's my job, every morning I get up, to return to the taxpayers of Northwest Indiana as much of those monies as possible that they have paid in to their federal government," Visclosky said.
A Times analysis shows not all the earmarked money flows back to Visclosky's district. At least $24.5 million of the funds this year are to go toward companies and research centers in other congressional districts and states.
The 12-term congressman also defended the out-of-district spending.
Visclosky pointed to a $1 million earmark for Briartek Inc., of Indianapolis, as an example of how he approaches out-of-district earmarks.
The company is working to develop a system to alert ships' crews when someone has fallen overboard.
"They have a really good idea that can save lives and help defend our country," Visclosky said.
This is the first year congressman have been required to disclose sponsorship of earmarks, their purpose and where they will go. At last count, Congress had placed about $13.2 billion in earmarks into this year's bills.
Visclosky supported the legislation to disclose earmarks.
His earmarking efforts rank him right behind such congressional heavyweights as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. No other Indiana congressman comes close, with most securing less than one-tenth what Visclosky does.
Those who have benefitted from Visclosky's largesse in the past are standing by the congressman.
"The appropriations we receive through Congressman Visclosky are extremely important in meeting our annual improvement targets," said John Parsons, marketing and planning director for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.
The district operates the South Shore commuter railroad. It would receive $5 million this year for its catenary wire improvement projects under a Visclosky earmark.
But almost half of Visclosky's earmarks this year are not flowing to public projects or universities. High-tech firms working on everything from clean coal technology to military communications will get $44 million, or 38 percent, of Visclosky's earmarks.
One deal that is seeing particular scrutiny is Visclosky's $4 million earmark for Jupiter Oxygen, a company owned by Dietrich Gross, owner of Jupiter Aluminum, in Hammond.
A front-page article in the New York Times in August detailed how Visclosky and Texas Republican Joe Barton had obtained the earmark for Jupiter's clean coal project after it was rejected by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Jupiter Oxygen, which employs 10 people, received $7.8 million two years ago through another congressional earmark.
"What you do is try to make a sound assessment of the technology and the need involved in the context of the problems this nation faces," Visclosky said.
Jupiter's research holds real promise of someday dramatically reducing green house gases and pollutants, while lessening our nation's dependence on foreign oil, he said.
Visclosky and Barton have also received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Jupiter executives and their immediate family members.
A company's support for his campaign has no bearing on which ones get earmarks and which do not, Visclosky said.