One of Congress' leading opponents of earmarks has a history of writing letters to federal agencies highlighting projects in his district seeking federal grants.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, has staked out a position seeking to end earmarks but letters obtained by The Huffington Post show that Flake did write agency heads regarding projects in his district. Among the projects Flake wrote to agency heads about were a grant for a local fire department in district, funding for a new post office, a highway from Phoenix to Las Vegas and a solar energy project at Arizona State University.
The practice of members of Congress writing to federal agencies to request funds is commonly known as "lettermarking" as opposed to inserting a directive for funds in an appropriations bill, known as earmarking. Flake highlighted his opposition to earmarks in his first Senate campaign commercial.
In the letters, where Flake raises attention to the projects, he did not specifically ask for federal funds to be directed to the projects. He instead uses the letters to describe the projects, a notation that Flake's spokeswoman, Genevieve Frye Rozansky, said does not make the letters a direct request for funds.
'Congressman Flake is a vocal opponent of so-called lettermarks, as such he’s gone out of his way so that his correspondence with executive branch agencies is not misinterpreted as congressional direction," Frye Rozansky said.
At the end of most of Flake's letters to agency heads, he includes language stating that his request is for "informational purposes only" and is not designed to be a "congressional directive." He encouraged the agencies to award all grants on a merit-based system. In his August 2010 letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood regarding the proposed highway, Flake specifically did not call the item an earmark. The highway letter was co-written with then Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.)
"It is clear that allowing the status quo to continue unabated would result in intolerable congestion at best, and a safety hazard at worst," Flake and Shadegg wrote. "To be clear, this letter should in no way be considered a request for earmarked funds. Rather, should the Department of Transportation or either of the relevant congressional committees consider it, we would be in support of designating a direct corridor between Phoenix and Las Vegas as "I-11" to serve as a part of the Interstate Highway System."
The rest of the letter contains material describing the traffic conditions between the two cities and the need for a highway linking the two. Flake's other letters are similar, including the ASU solar project letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, where he describes the university's capability to host the project.
Flake is currently battling businessman Wil Cardon for the Republican nod to face Democrat Richard Carmona for the seat of retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R).
Flake's letter-writing does not surprise California State University political science professor Sean Kelly, who co-authored a book on earmarks, saying that lettermarks and "phonemarks" have been around for years and rise with popularity given the current earmark bans. Kelly and co-author Scott Frisch argued in "Cheese Factories on the Moon," that earmarks are good for democracy since the process is more open than letter writing.
"This is one of the things that we argued when the earmark moratorium came along," Kelly told HuffPost. "You take a transparent process and moved it to the shadows. There is no way to track that information now."
Kelly, who called lettermarks and phonemarks as old as earmarks, said he believes that the letters written by Flake and other members of Congress do influence the process. While the letters may say that it is not a congressional directive, he believes the letter does lend political authority to the process.
"My ass they're not political," Kelly said of merit-based grants. "They're as political as anything else."