'Nothing to it,'' said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, asked about his $2 million windfall from selling land near his Plano home, a few miles from the proposed Prairie Parkway he has championed.
That transaction -- reported last week in the Sun-Times, Tribune, Beacon News and on the Web site of a new political watchdog group -- was a front page story in the Thursday Washington Post, headlined, "Lawmakers' Profits Are Scrutinized."
It's unusual heat for Hastert.
Hastert is walking and talking in the Capitol, not stopping as he takes a few questions. At issue is whether land values in Kendall County became more valuable because of the Prairie Parkway.
"There is no substance to it. I've been working on the Prairie Parkway probably for a good 18 years. That's a matter of record, it is not built. Nothing to it," he said.
Hastert is in the spotlight in part because he used what's called in Washington an "earmark'' to secure $207 million in federal funding for the proposed road.
The money was in a massive transportation bill signed by President Bush last year at a ceremony in Hastert's home Kendall County.
Earmarks are specific projects written into legislation at the last minute, bypassing the committee process, inserted anonymously into bills.
Congress is considering changing the rules regarding earmarks, on economic and ethical grounds.
The earmarking process is controversial for several reasons: on the budget side because the burgeoning use of earmarks is driving up the cost of government.
On the ethics side, earmarks -- and the ability of some powerful lawmakers to virtually write projects into law -- are at the center of the investigation of convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Hastert, however, has never made a secret of his sponsorship for the Prairie Parkway, the subject of much local debate as Kendall Country wrestles with explosive development.
This earmark was not as sneaky as some because Hastert telegraphed his punch. It was included in a proposed list of Illinois projects in a document put together by former Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.) on Jan. 24, 2003.
At a GOP fund-raiser Monday, Hastert blasted what he called the "unrelenting Democratic media.''
He seems irritated at accusations of personal profit from the "Hastert Highway" and why he did not specifically describe the transactions on his disclosure statement, as required by the House Ethics Manual.
"I listed it the way the disclosure said I should list it, exactly," he said.
Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.