This is a fine example of how Congress spends us blind.
In February 2003, former U.S. Rep. James Walsh used his influence as a senior congressman to secure $1.7 million in federal tax dollars to help with the Carousel Center expansion known as Destiny USA.
Congress approved the spending without public debate. The money was intended to help clean up toxic soil buried under the mall’s parking lot, making way for the planned Grand Destiny Hotel, Walsh said when he announced the grant.
Now, nine years later, there is no hotel. No contaminated dirt has been removed. It remains buried under the parking lot.
Destiny USA’s developers didn’t return Walsh’s earmark. Instead, executives found a new way to spend the tax money, this time on environmentally-friendly technology.
One critic said it’s not a surprise that a private company could dramatically rewrite its grant years later and that city officials have a sketchy paper trail of the spending.
The government watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, views the Destiny spending as symbolic — typical of the wasteful pork from the days when Congress directed money to special projects in the home districts of influential members through secretive earmarks.
Nine years after the earmark and three years after Walsh left office, federal auditors have forced City Hall and Destiny to dig through documents and long-archived emails to explain what happened to the money.
In January 2011, auditors for HUD’s inspector general mounted a yearlong investigation into the Destiny grant and 40 others that Syracuse received through Walsh from 1999 through 2006.
The auditors also wonder what took so long. Why were most of the promised projects not completed before a Sept. 22, 2010, HUD deadline?
Walsh said it was unusual for the grants to be amended and used for something else without congressional approval. But he said it’s clear the Destiny money was worthwhile. The mall expansion is now the largest LEED Gold certified retail building in the United States, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.
“It sounds like most of the money has been well spent,” Walsh said. “And it’s good to know the federal government is keeping track.”
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