The speaker described a "travesty of justice," cited "bullying" tactics, and warned of a PR scandal at the Department of Homeland Security. Nope, it wasn't Michael Moore on George W. Bush. It was Indiana Congressman Mark Souder on fellow Republican Walter B. Jones of North Carolina. Souder launched his tirade in a House committee hearing on Sept. 9. His subject (though not that of the hearing) was the ultra-conservative North Carolina congressman's role in an ongoing controversy over the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
Last October, Currituck County lost a bitter competition for ownership of the 129-year-old brick tower. Instead, the deed went to the Outer Banks Conservationists (OBC), a nonprofit that had restored the light and opened it to the public. Jones intervened on the county's behalf to delay the deed and push the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the nonprofit's previous lease with the U.S. Coast Guard. (See "The Fight for the Light," www.indyweek.com/durham/2003-11-19/cover.html).
The ongoing investigation--which has held up needed repairs at the tower--was what sparked Souder's ire. At the committee hearing, he blasted Jones for pushing for a probe after two previous audits found nothing wrong with OBC's caretaking.
"This has been a bullying tactic," Souder said, that threatens the lighthouse transfer program the Indiana congressman helped pass. (He duly noted there are no lighthouses in his landlocked district.)
"I believe this is one of the biggest travesties of justice that I have ever seen," Souder added. "I want to make sure that the general public understands, and this is if this continues, it is going to be the worst PR nightmare the Department of Homeland Security has ever faced up to this point."
Jones, whose home district is in Eastern North Carolina, was not at the hearing. Here's the spin his spokeswoman Kristen Quigley put on the situation after we faxed her Souder's comments: "It sounds like what Mr. Souder was trying to say is that everyone wants to expedite the process and just get this over with and find out everything as quickly as possible. If that's what he's saying, then the congressman absolutely agrees that we should move on and wait for this report anxiously and see what happens and get it over with as quickly as possible."
Meanwhile, the feds still have $180,000 that OBC raised for lighthouse repairs locked up in escrow. They've also asked the nonprofit to repay money it spent on the ownership application process. This summer marked "three years of constant reviews, audits and conflicts--mostly initiated by Rep. Walter Jones," says OBC's founder John Wilson, whose great-grandparents were Currituck lighthouse keepers. "Soon, we will have been investigated more than Whitewater... with the same conclusion: No wrongdoing."