Based on the many charts, graphs and pages of text that the Washington Post has devoted to its massive report on lawmakers who steer funding to businesses, universities and other community groups where their family members work, it's clear the paper thinks that it has uncovered a scandal. But in the case of Houston congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who is under fire for obtaining millions in earmarks for the University of Houston while her husband has been an administrator there, it looks like much ado about nothing.
According to the Post, Lee sponsored or co-sponsored bills that sent a combined $5.25 million to the university in 2009 and 2010. Lee's husband Elwyn C. Lee has worked at the university since 1978 and currently serves as Vice President for Community Relations and Institutional Access.
The Post is, essentially, taking Lee to task for doing the job she was elected to do — bringing federal dollars to Houston institutions and employers.
The Post also manages to make muck of Alabama Senator Richard Shelby bringing $100 million to redevelop Tuscaloosa, where he owns an office building. That would indeed seem excessive, had Tuscaloosa not been ravaged by tornados and Hurricane Katrina in the past decade. Rep. Robert Latta of Ohio is listed for delivering grants to Ohio's Bowling Green University, where his wife was vice president, despite clearing the potential conflict of interest with the House ethics committee.
For all the insinuations of impropriety, the Post never manages to say how exactly Lee's UH grants — which went to creating a National Wind Energy Center, the Center for Clean Fuels and Power Generation and teacher training and professional development — benefited or were related to her husband's position at all.
There's no suggestion that Lee sought out money for the University of Houston at the expense of other centers of higher learning in her district, as the paper says she also secured earmarks for Texas Southern University and the University of Texas in recent years. There's no allegation that the UH programs Lee helped to fund were frivolous or wasteful. The Post is, essentially, taking Lee to task for doing the job she was elected to do — bringing federal dollars to Houston institutions and employers.
"None of the Congressional earmarks secured by UH was directed to the areas under my supervision. As a Tier One research institution we have robust conflict‐of‐interest policies and implement management plans to handle any conflicts that arise,"said Elwyn C. Lee in a statement provided to the Post by the University of Houston. "To reiterate, it is not my responsibility, and it has never been my responsibility, to secure Congressional earmarks. Therefore, there has been no conflict to manage."
Lee's website even claims that the congresswoman attempted to secure an additional $16.5 million for the university in the past fiscal year but was prevented by an earmark moratorium. That's the problem with earmarks — it's only pork when it's going to someone else's district. When it's going to your community it's money to support local programs and create jobs.
The Post reports that Lee and her staff met with senior UH administrators to discuss potential funding. Great. That's called servicing your constituents. I would bet that Jackson Lee took similar meetings with NASA executives (although the space center isn't technically inside her district), Texas Medical Center heads and other large organizations eligible for federal grants and funding.
The most offensive tidbit about Lee and her husband from the Post story is that since 1994 Elwyn Lee's salary at UH has doubled, now standing at over $200,000. Yes, an executive whose role and title expanded during his two-decade tenure managed to earn a significantly greater salary by the end of it. I hope you were sitting down for that revelation.
The problem with the Post's story is that there are some expenditures that are legitimate causes for concern — like the Florida congresswoman who happens to get grants for companies that hire her daughter as a lobbyist — but those issues are buried in the sheer volume of potential conflicts that don't on their own indicate any favoritism or abuse.