WASHINGTON - Opponents of a proposed $1.7 million water project in Cohasset are crying foul because the family of an out-of-state former congressman who helped secure taxpayer funds for the project owns property that would benefit from the work.
In 2003, US Representative Amory Houghton, a New York Republican who retired in 2005 after 18 years in Congress, requested that a $50,000 earmark be inserted into a water projects appropriations bill. It directed the Army Corps of Engineers to study whether to connect a freshwater pool called Treat's Pond to Cohasset Harbor as a saltwater ecosystems restoration project.
The Army Corps decided that the project would help the environment. But the project would also have a key side benefit: It would help alleviate a drainage problem at Treat's Pond that sometimes causes nearby properties to be flooded. One of those properties is a house owned by Houghton's wife and her three children from an earlier marriage.
On Saturday, residents of Cohasset will vote on whether to spend up to $300,000 in local taxes as matching funds that are required if the Army Corps project is to go forward. The plan has attracted fierce opposition among some residents, who are putting a spotlight on Houghton's role as one of several reasons they say the project should be stopped.
"It's a flat-out conflict of interest on [Houghton's] part to be improving his own wife's property using the power of his position in Washington, D.C.," said Peter Whittemore, a Cohasset resident.
Houghton acknowledged in a phone interview that he requested the 2003 earmark, that he has been a key backer of the project by hosting meetings about it in his wife's home, and that his wife's property has a flooding problem that would be helped if the project went through. But he strongly denied that there was anything inappropriate about his involvement in the project.
Houghton argued that other homeowners would also benefit from reducing the risk of flooding during storms, as well as lowering the risk of a fire in the pond's phragmite reeds during dry periods. He said there is nothing wrong with a lawmaker using his personal knowledge of a problem when crafting public policy.
"As a citizen and as someone who loves the area, I don't think there is anything wrong" in having helped get the project started, Houghton said, calling the "attacks on my integrity" a "cheap shot" by the project's critics.
Houghton, whose family is connected to the
Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said Houghton probably did not violate congressional ethics rules. The rules allow members to propose laws that affect their private interests as long as the plans benefit others, as well.
Still, Ashdown said, it is rare for a lawmaker to request an earmark outside his district. And like all earmarks, he said, the Treat's Pond project, while potentially worthy in and of itself, might not be the best use of public funds, given that it was selected because a powerful person happened to know about it.
Houghton is not the only lawmaker who has pushed the Treat's Pond project. Representative William D. Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes Cohasset, separately requested the same earmark in 2003 after a group of several dozen Cohasset activists, Houghton among them, approached his office to request help with the pond's problems, said Delahunt aides.
Delahunt has also pushed several similar projects in his district. After Houghton retired, Delahunt followed through on the Treat's Pond initiative by securing another $728,000 earmark for it in a December 2007 water projects appropriations bill. Besides the two earmarks, the Army Corps has also budgeted about $320,000 from its discretionary funds to complete the project.
Houghton said he will attend Town Meeting Saturday to repeat his arguments that the project is worthy and would be a boon to the town, so it makes little sense to turn down the federal money.
"You're getting this thing for 12 cents on the dollar if the state comes through and the federal government comes through," he said. "You've got to do it [fix the drainage] one way or another. . . . If you've got a flood-control problem, you've got to face it."
But it is unclear whether there is enough local support to secure the approval of two-thirds of the voters present, which Cohasset rules require for public expenditures.
Whittemore said he and other opponents intend to argue that the repair work will be more expensive than the Army Corps is estimating, that the flooding problem can be solved more frugally, and that the whole project was developed in an unethical manner.
For Houghton, the attack on his ethics is particularly galling.
"These guys are trying to undercut my integrity," he said.
Globe correspondent Christine Legere contributed to this report.