"Congressman services his big donor pals by earmarking a million tax dollars to pave one mile of a remote, desert playground for the rich."
Nov. 16, 2007
By ALICIA A. CALDWELL
LAJITAS — The Texas Department of Transportation is sitting on nearly $1.2 million in federal funds the state agency may never be able to spend, thanks to an earmark from a congressman who wanted to help a contributor move a road through a golf resort he belonged to.
Former U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla steered the money from Washington to Austin in 2005 to move a 1.2-mile stretch of highway that cuts directly through a privately owned border town-turned-exclusive resort.
But the resort went bankrupt and the "Lajitas Relief Route" earmark, buried in a massive highway spending bill, can't be used for anything else.
So, the road sits, still separating pricey hotel rooms from the resort's lush golf course, its two restaurants and most other amenities offered at Lajitas, The Ultimate Hideout. The resort sits on the western edge of Brewster County, a desolate part of West Texas that includes Big Bend National Park and has 1.4 people for each of its 6,130 square miles.
The owner of the resort, Stephen Smith, donated $2,500 to Bonilla's campaigns, and Bonilla owned a membership in the resort — valued as high as $75,000 — that its Web site says is available only to property owners. Bonilla, who was voted out of office in 2006, owns no property in Lajitas.
"The money could be returned to the federal pot ... or the new owners (of the resort) might want to push for that (project)," said Mark Crews, a TxDOT official in El Paso.
The federal earmark doesn't have an expiration date and so far TxDOT officials have not announced plans to return the money.
A call to Smith's cell phone couldn't go through. A call to his bankruptcy attorney, Mark Petrocchi, was not immediately returned.
Several attempts to reach Bonilla through his campaign treasurer were unsuccessful.
The bypass plan, proposed by Smith's resort company, was initially part of a $7 million project to rebuild 13 miles of aging highway. The extra cost to move the roadway from the center of the resort, according to TxDOT, was supposed to be footed by the resort.
"They (Lajitas) were going to pay for it. Bonilla's earmark was not even discussed," Crews said.
But then Bonilla worked the money for the resort's road project into the federal highway spending bill.
When the deal fell apart on the resort's way to bankruptcy, the money "that Bonilla was so generous in giving us" went into limbo, Crews said.
Crews said the bypass project, which would now cost several million dollars to complete, could be revived if a new owner at Lajitas or even the county decided to fund it.
"We don't have the means or the inclination," said Val Beard, the county's top elected official for the last 15 years. "It's something between TxDOT and the resort."
Andrew Wheat, a research director for the nonpartisan watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said that Bonilla distilled "all that's wrong with American politics into a simple anecdote."
"Every civics textbook in Texas should tell the story of the congressman who services his big donor pals by earmarking a million tax dollars to pave one mile of a remote, desert playground for the rich," Wheat said.
Bonilla has had ties to Smith and his resort since at least 2003. Smith has also been a generous donor to Republican candidates and committees for several years.
Since 1999, Smith has donated more than $300,000 to Republicans, according to Federal Election Commission records.
In 2005, Bonilla's American Dream PAC spent more than $17,000 at the resort for a fundraiser, records show.
Smith bought the resort at auction in 2000 for about $4 million. At the time, the property had a small hotel and a nine-hole golf course. He spent several years and tens of millions of dollars to morph the arid patch of desert into a luxury resort with 92 hotel rooms, 10 condominiums and plans for a master-planned community of vacation homes.
In July, the company filed for bankruptcy in federal court.
Associated Press Writer Suzanne Gamboa in Washington, DC contributed to this report.
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