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Alaska Congressman helps Florida developer after fund raiser

2:04 PM, Dec 11, 2007   |    comments
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2007 Emmy Winner: Politics/Government
Mike Deeson


Ft. Myers, Florida - It is the 41st largest city in Florida and one of the fast growing in the country, but Ft. Myers -- which was chosen by Money Magazine as one the best places to retire -- still has a small town feel. And now the area is involved in a controversy that stretches from Florida to Alaska.

Phil Douglas, Homeowner:
“This is a travesty of our Congress.”

Phil Douglas is talking about a proposed project on one of the state's most used highways, Interstate 75. The project is a $10 million study of whether a new exit should be added to I-75.

Ray Judah, Lee County Commissioner:
“It was rather unusual that this money became available.”

Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah says the unusual part is the state didn't ask for the study or the money. It was inserted into the budget by Alaska Congressman Don Young.

Ray Judah, Lee County Commissioner:
“This interchange was at a location where it would also connect across six sections of land east of 1-75 owned by Mr. Dan Aronoff, otherwise known as Edison Farms.”

Developer Dan Aronoff wants to build an 8,000-home community on environmentally sensitive land east of I-75 near Ft. Myers. Phil Douglas says it will ruin the area.

Phil Douglas, Homeowner:
“I love the community. I want to do what I can to preserve my quality of life.”

But in order to preserve that quality of life, Douglas and others opposed to the project will have to fight a developer who stands to make a huge amount of money. We asked Judah if it could approach a billion dollars.

Ray Judah, Lee County Commissioner:
“No questions about it.”

And at first glance, it doesn't make any sense why Congressman Young would earmark $10 million for a Florida project that not one elected official in the state of Florida had asked for. But commissioner Judah says it comes into focus when you learn there was fundraiser for Young at a Hyatt outside Ft. Myers that raised more than $41,000 in campaign contributions.

And Judah says one of the major organizers of the fundraiser is Dan Aronoff. He's the developer who stands to profit if the interchange is built.

Ray Judah, Lee County Commissioner:
“You're going to have to connect the dots. There's no question in my mind. All of a sudden this 10 million comes out of nowhere. There is a relationship between Mr. Aronoff and the money he has raised for Don Young.”

When Judah asked if the money could be used for other transportation projects, he was warned not to go there.

Ray Judah, Lee County Commissioner:
“We actually would potentially compromise the ability to receive those $10 million but also it could hurt the opportunity to receive federal funds in future years for other projects. No question there was a lot of pressure.”

While no one from the developer or from Congressman Don Young's office would comment on the deal, those opposed say Young should be ashamed.

Ray Judah, Lee County Commissioner:
“I think there should be outrage by taxpayers.”
Phil Douglas, Homeowner:
“To put  $10 million in the budget in an area he has not interest in except to get further political payback from contributors. It is a travesty and it should stop immediately.”

Mike Deeson, Tampa Bay's 10 News

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