WASHINGTON, D.C. - A commission working to bring a third regional airport to Chicago's south suburbs could receive a $231,000 grant to study how best to maximize the economic benefit of a new airport.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. inserted an earmark for the grant into a $21.4 billion appropriations bill that passed the U.S. House Thursday and now goes to the Senate for approval. The bill affects a variety of programs and projects, from voting machines for states to efforts to bolster consumer protection.
But Jackson's earmark for the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission raised the ire of some Republicans because Jackson created and staffed the commission - its executive director, Rick Bryant, is a Jackson aide - to help bring the airport to Peotone.
"This is a wholly inappropriate use of taxpayers' dollars,'' said Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., chairman of the study committee's budget and spending task force. "It's using money for his own organization, basically funding his own political objective of a new airport.''
Conservative lawmakers calling themselves the Republican Study Committee issued a statement Thursday criticizing Jackson for inserting the earmark for the study.
Campbell offered an amendment to delete money for the grant, but the amendment was rejected by the House on a 318-107 vote. All 10 of Illinois' House Democrats voted against the amendment.
Of the nine Republicans, Rep. Jerry Weller was among five who supported Campbell; two others - Reps. Dennis Hastert and Ray LaHood - did not vote on the amendment.
Jackson's aides emphasized that Jackson had received clearance from the House Ethics Committee years ago to make Bryant the airport commission's executive director as an unpaid volunteer.
They accused Weller of conspiring to try to tarnish his integrity in an effort to stall and sabotage his efforts for the new airport.
Kenneth Edmunds, Jackson's chief of staff, said Thursday's Republican effort was "an outrageous, malicious and deliberate attempt'' to tarnish Jackson's integrity by implying that that was something suspicious about the earmark to the airport commission.
"That is categorically false. It is a bold-faced lie,'' Edmunds said. Thursday's "attack was garbage, spoon fed by Congressman Jerry Weller and regurgitated by the Republican Study Committee. And, it stunk.''
Weller did not immediately return a reporter's phone messages Friday seeking comment from the congressman or his spokesman. He has been involved in previous disputes with Jackson over how the airport should be controlled by local authorities.
But Campbell said Friday that he had learned about the grant from his own staff and Weller was not responsible for challenging it. Republican Study Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said he had never spoken with Weller, and knew of no committee members who had discussed Jackson's amendment with Weller.
Jackson' aides say the Illinois Department of Transportation is expected to seek Federal Aviation Administration approval for the airport, near Peotone, in Will County. Favorable FAA action should come within six months of the submission of paperwork, they say.
Jackson has made the airport his pet project for more than a decade. In 2004, two developers committed $200 million to the project. And in 2005 the project won the endorsement of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The airport commission is made up of 21 home-rule communities in Cook, Will and Kankakee counties. Its private partners are LCOR and SNC-Lavalin, which plan to fund airport construction privately.