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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Not long ago, a member of our staff noticed a septic truck. It was painted with a sarcastic slogan: political promises inside.

INSKEEP: This comes to mind as we examine the statements of some members of Congress. Many attacked the federal stimulus bill.

MONTAGNE: Many are running against it this fall. Yet, some seem to like it.

INSKEEP: An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity finds that some of the bill's biggest critics have worked to get the money for their districts.

Here's Audie Cornish.

AUDIE CORNISH: One of the major selling points of the stimulus bill was that it was supposed to be free of congressional earmarks - those little flags lawmakers plant in legislation claiming money for pet projects. President Obama celebrated the bill on its first anniversary.

BARACK OBAMA: I'm grateful that Congress agreed to my request that the bill include no earmarks, that all projects receive funding based solely on their merits.

CORNISH: But the Center for Public Integrity has discovered that lawmakers, instead of going through the congressional earmark process, have written directly to federal departments with backdoor requests for stimulus funds. It's a practice known as lettermarking, says John Solomon.

JOHN SOLOMON: The letters one day were on my desk, and they were a foot high - so much so that I couldn't look over my desk and see my colleagues across the hallway because they were - literally, it was a mountain of paper.

CORNISH: Solomon is an investigative journalist for the Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group. It collected the letters using federal agency sources and the Freedom of Information Act.

He says the Obama administration tried to insulate the bill from lettermarks by ordering agencies not to consider the requests. But, Solomon says, the calls and letters poured in - from Democrats who had crowed there would be no earmarks, to Republicans who had panned the stimulus bill for failing to create jobs.

SOLOMON: But when they wrote the letter to try to get money for their local district or their local company, they said, this project's going to create jobs, and we hope you give it stimulus money. And so their letters undercut the very arguments that they make politically on the campaign trail or on Fox and MSNBC.

CORNISH: For instance, when the stimulus passed, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander spoke out against the bill on the Senate floor.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: It is not temporary. It is not targeted. It is not primarily creating jobs. It is not stimulus bill. It is mostly a spending bill.

CORNISH: But Alexander wrote letters to the Transportation Department seeking stimulus grants for local projects he said would spur job creation.

Half a year later, after the bill passed, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told CNN...

MITCH MCCONNELL: I think the stimulus was a big mistake. I can - think we can, you know, fairly, safely declare it now a failure.

CORNISH: But that fall, he wrote the Transportation Department, endorsing a state application for stimulus funds for a rail project.

This year, conservative Democrat Walt Minnick of Idaho - one of seven Democrats to vote against the stimulus bill - is running ads touting his opposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

WALT MINNICK: I've had to say no far more than I've said yes. I've said no to more government spending...

CORNISH: But Minnick wrote the Commerce Department at least three times lobbying for stimulus funds for broadband projects.

None of these lawmakers would agree to a taped interview with NPR. But staff from the offices of Congressman Minnick and Senator Alexander issued written statements. They defended the right to aid constituents who asked for help. They said lawmakers didn't necessarily get the grants they sought, and when they did, it was based on merit and competitive bidding.

The Center for Public Integrity calls its report "Stimulating Hypocrisy."

JIM WALSH: Well, that's a strong word. Inconsistent for sure.

CORNISH: That's Jim Walsh, a New York Republican who served 20 years in Congress, many of those on the Appropriations Committee. Walsh says what matters more than the request is the response.

WALSH: When I was looking at bills and members were railing against earmarks and requesting them at the same time, that was duly noted.

CORNISH: What do you mean by that?

WALSH: Well, if they were saying publicly that they didn't want earmarks, then they didn't get them.

CORNISH: But without journalists and researchers filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, there's no way for the public to know whether lettermarking's effective. That's the concern of Ryan Alexander of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

RYAN ALEXANDER: If the agencies get letters from members of Congress, they should make them public immediately. They should not wait for a FOIA. They should be clear about how those letters may or may not influence their decisions.

CORNISH: Now that these letters are public, investigators at the Center for Public Integrity say they hope to see voters demand more transparency from lawmakers.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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