The Murtha Method

Computer analysis shows 12 of 16 House defense subcommittee members in controversial circles of lobbyists, earmarks, and campaign cash

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For months, a cloud has swirled around Congressman John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, and the relationship that Murtha and other subcommittee members had with the PMA Group, a lobbying firm filled with former subcommittee aides.

Murtha and fellow panel members Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) steered a host of earmarks to PMA clients, and those clients and PMA staffers gave campaign contributions to the lawmakers. Aspects of those relationships are the subject of a Justice Department probe, which is thought to be looking at whether there were explicit quid pro quo exchanges of favors for cash, which would make crimes out of relationships that are otherwise legal. The House ethics committee is also looking at the situation, and the PMA Group closed following an FBI raid late last year.

Now, a computer analysis by the Center for Public Integrity has revealed that fully three-quarters of the subcommittee members have been involved in similar patterns of behavior — in circles of relationships fraught with potential conflicts of interest, involving former congressional staffers-turned lobbyists, earmarks, and campaign cash. In these circles, former staffers became lobbyists for defense contractors; the contractors received earmarks from the representatives; and the representatives received campaign contributions from the lobbyists or the contractors.

The Center’s analysis, which covered fiscal year 2008, found these relationship circles included not only PMA but 10 other lobbying firms. More than 50 earmarks are involved, totaling more than $100 million, while the campaign contributions amounted to more than $1 million. The examination relied on data from Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the U.S. Senate’s Office of Public Records.

The House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee is widely considered the key House panel funding the Pentagon. Fully 12 of the subcommittee’s 16 members were involved in the controversial practices. Along with Murtha, Visclosky, and Moran, the list includes ranking Republican, C.W. Bill Young of Florida, Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), Dave Hobson (R-Ohio), Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Kay Granger (R-Texas), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). Hobson retired at the end of last year, and Wicker became a senator, but all the others remain members of the subcommittee.

The lobbyists, the House members, and the companies that received earmarks say the relationships are entirely legal, and none of the representatives has been charged with wrongdoing. But government reform groups say the practices represent the worst of Washington’s revolving door culture, and are little more than legalized corruption.

“Former staffers are capitalizing on their connections, access, and influence to deliver for their clients,” says Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Our men and women in harm’s way deserve the best products…We cannot afford to make funding decisions on the basis of political muscle rather than project merit.”

Former Senate staffer Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, is more blunt: “Earmarks and contributions are both legal and constitutional,” he says, “but corrupt as hell.”

Here is a run-down on the Center’s analysis, which matched databases on campaign contributions and earmark legislation with subcommittee members and their current and former staff. Among the findings:

John Murtha and C.W. Bill Young: The senior earmarkers

Murtha: Earmarks: $48.2 million

Contributions: $493,950

Young: Earmarks: $21.8 million

Contributions: $145,291

C.W. Bill Young’s “network” analyzed by the Center included three former staffers representing one defense contractor each. Former Young legislative aide Bryan Blom is a government relations manager for Van Scoyoc Associates Inc., the self-described “largest independent lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.” His company biography boasts that he “fully grasps the federal funding process, having worked for a senior appropriator.” Perhaps this is why defense contracting behemoth SAIC retained his services. In 2008, the company received a pair of earmarks from Young, totaling $4.4 million for battlefield sensor netting and bioterrorism detection systems. Young got $20,500 from SAIC’s PAC and $2,250 from the company’s leadership. Van Scoyoc Associates told the Center that Blom himself has never lobbied Young or his staff on any issue.

Blom’s colleague at Van Scoyoc, Vice President Douglas M. Gregory, is also a former Young staffer, having served as the congressman’s chief of staff and on the appropriations defense subcommittee staff. Gregory represents the New Jersey-based DRS Technologies Inc., which received four 2008 Young earmarks totaling $7.6 million for items including radar technologies. Young got $20,000 from the DRS PAC, $36,100 from its executives, and $2,941 from Van Scoyoc’s PAC.

Finally, Young earmarked three projects at costs of $1 million, $2.4 million, and $3.2 million to Information Manufacturing Corp., now part of National Interest Security Company, for intelligence management systems. IMC’s lobbyist, Brent Jaquet, senior vice president at another lobbying firm, Cavarocchi Ruscio Dennis Associates LLC, was a senior appropriations aide to Young. Young received $2,400 from the company PAC and $29,100 from its executives.

John Murtha’s network included four former staffers — Carmen Scialabba of KSA Consulting Inc., Colette Marchesini Pollock of GSP Consulting Corp., Scott Harshman of Harshman Consulting LLC, and Gabrielle Carruth, who works directly for defense contractor Argon ST Inc. — representing six defense contractors. Those contractors — Advanced Acoustic Concepts, Argon ST, Coherent Systems, KDH Defense System Inc., Nokomis Inc., and Sabeus Sensor Systems — received a total of eight earmarks, worth a combined $18 million, for such items as a detection system for improvised explosive devices, waterway threat detection, and computer systems for small combat ships. Murtha and his Majority PAC received $51,100 from their corporate PACs, $111,600 from key corporate executives, $2,500 from GSP Consulting’s PAC, and $26,900 from the lobbyists’ own personal checkbooks — $192,100 in all. The treasurer of Argon ST’s corporate PAC is the very same Gabrielle Carruth. David Herbener, president of KDH, claimed in an e-mail that Scialabba has never represented his company, though KSA Consulting has filed more than a dozen public disclosure forms since 2003 declaring Scialabba’s lobbying work for KDH.

Murtha’s richest earmark largesse was saved for a former appropriations subcommittee staffer who had a long-standing personal relationship with the congressman, but never technically worked for him: Paul Magliocchetti of the now defunct PMA Group Inc. (PMA stood for Paul Magliocchetti Associates). Magliocchetti represented seven defense contractors — Concurrent Technologies Corp., Conemaugh Health System, the aforementioned DRS, Goodrich Corp., MTS Technologies Inc., Parametric Technology Corp., and ProLogic Inc. The companies received an impressive $30,200,000 in earmarks from Murtha and Murtha received $83,800 in PAC contributions and $209,050 in donations from executives at the companies. Murtha also received $7,000 from PMA’s PAC and $2,000 from Magliocchetti himself.

Similarly, Young arranged an earmark to General Dynamics, represented by PMA lobbyist Richard Efford, who had previously worked as a Republican staffer on the subcommittee. The Virginia-based defense contractor got $3.2 million for artillery technology and Young got $25,000 from the General Dynamics PAC, $2,500 from company executives, and $4,500 from PMA’s PAC.

The FBI raided PMA’s Arlington, Va., headquarters in November 2008. Concurrent Technologies and ProLogic are both reportedly under federal investigation for contracting irregularities. The House ethics committee has acknowledged that it is investigating possible misconduct in regards to members of Congress or staffers and their relationships with PMA. A spokesman for Murtha declined to comment for this story, though Murtha has previously defended his earmarking practices. “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Young’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Peter Visclosky: Another PMA friend

Earmarks: $14 million

Contributions: $321,450

Two other congressmen — Peter Visclosky and Jim Moran — were involved in similar circles with former staffers who later worked at the PMA Group.

Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat in his 13th term in the House, is a former appropriations committee staff member himself. He is tied to the PMA Group through his former appropriations committee assistant, legislative director, and chief of staff Richard M. Kaelin.

After leaving his position with Visclosky in 2003, Kaelin joined PMA. Among his dozens of lobbying clients were at least ten defense contractors for whom his old boss secured a total of $14 million in earmarks. The companies, whose earmarks ranged from $800,000 to $2,000,000 apiece, were: 21st Century Systems Inc., BriarTek Inc., General Atomics, General Dynamics Corp., NuVant Systems Inc., Optimal Solutions & Technology, Parametric Technology Corp., ProLogic Inc., RaySat Antenna Systems LLC, and Sierra Nevada Corp. The earmarks were for such items as methanol fuel cell battery rechargers and a man-overboard identification system. Visclosky’s generosity was well rewarded: he and his Calumet leadership PAC received $124,100 from these contractors’ corporate PACs; $170,350 from individuals in the firms’ leadership, $14,000 from PMA’s company political action committee, and $13,000 from Kaelin himself. All told, Visclosky’s political committees received more than $321,000. On August 27, the Federal Election Commission approved a request from his re-election committee to allow him to use campaign funds to pay the legal bills for his current and former staffers as they deal with the PMA investigation. Visclosky’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Jim Moran: A gusto for earmarking

Earmarks: $3.2 million

Contributions: $69,900

The final PMA-tied earmarker to surface in the Center’s analysis was Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, a ten-term Democrat from the state’s Washington, D.C., suburbs. In June 2006, Moran told attendees at his district’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner that that if he were to become chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, he would “earmark the s—- out of it.” Though not yet a chairman, Moran received $12,000 in campaign contributions from PMA’s PAC between 2006 and 2008. He received $44,500 from Planning Systems Inc. during that same time. Both Planning Systems and another company, ProLogic, had hired Moran’s former chief of staff, PMA lobbyist Melissa Koloszar, to represent them. Moran secured a $1.6 million earmark for ProLogic for “global combat support”, and a $1.6 million earmark for Planning Systems Inc. to build a submarine warfare system.

Moran, Koloszar, and ProLogic did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for QinetiQ, the parent company of Planning Systems Inc. said he could not comment, pending the House Ethics Committee investigation. “It is our general policy to not comment on ongoing investigations,” he told the Center.

Kay Granger: On the merits?

Earmarks: $3.6 million

Contributions: $23,000

Kay Granger, a seven-term Congresswoman from Texas, is the sole Republican woman on the subcommittee. Alyssa M. LeSage joined Granger’s staff in 2001 as a staff assistant and departed in 2003 as a legislative correspondent. She then joined the Washington-based government relations firm of Copeland Lowery Jaquez Denton & Shockey — now Innovative Federal Strategies LLC — and quickly became a registered lobbyist. Two of her clients were defense contractors L-3 Communications Corp. and General Dynamics Corp. L-3 received a $2,400,000 earmark from Granger for “Rivet Joint Network Interface Growth”; General Dynamics got $1,200,000 thanks to the congresswoman’s efforts for “I-1000 Warhead Technology Demonstration.” Granger Chief of Staff Craig Albright told the Center that the congresswoman “scrutinizes all [earmark] requests and considers them solely on their merit,” dismissing questions about the integrity of Granger’s appropriations work as “ridiculous.” Granger took $18,000 from the General Dynamics corporate PAC, $4,500 from L-3’s PAC, and $500 from LeSage.

A spokesman for General Dynamics, which also received earmarks from and made PAC contributions to Congressman Visclosky, said the firm hires lobbyists based on legislative expertise, “regardless of whether they ever worked for a particular member of Congress,” and that their contributions to both members were based on their support for the U.S. military.

As for Innovative Federal Strategies, a federal investigation has reportedly been underway since 2006 into earmarks and lobbying relationships involving the firm and Congressman Jerry Lewis, the ranking Republican on the full appropriations committee. Lewis is also a former chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee. Innovative Federal Strategies did not respond to a request for comment. Lewis has previously defended his earmarking practices, noting that he does not monitor his former aides’ lobbying connections, as doing so would be “untoward.”

Jack Kingston: A classic “revolving door”

Earmarks: $1.6 million

Contributions: $5,250

Innovative Federal Strategies and L-3 Communications also intersect with nine-term Georgia Republican Jack Kingston and a former Kingston staffer who epitomizes the concept of Washington’s “revolving door.” Between 2002 and 2005, Heather McNatt worked as a district scheduler, staff counsel, and then legislative director for Congressman Kingston. In 2005, she departed to become a lobbyist for Innovative (then still Copeland Lowery Jaquez Denton & White) and began representing L-3. In 2007, she returned to Kingston’s office, eventually becoming chief of staff — filling a void left when Kingston’s previous chief of staff took a position lobbying for another defense contractor. A year later, Kingston obtained a $1,600,000 earmark for L-3, the very company McNatt had represented; the earmark was for an Integrated Base Defense Security System for a Georgia Air Force base. McNatt left Kingston’s office at the end of 2008, returning to Innovative, and once again she is a registered lobbyist for L-3.

Kingston received $1,750 in contributions from McNatt, $2,000 in L-3 PAC money, and $1,500 in donations from top L-3 executives. A Kingston spokesman referred the Center to a 16-point checklist they use to consider defense earmark requests and noted that McNatt cannot currently lobby Kingston’s office due to ethics rules.

Todd Tiahrt: Protecting the status quo

Earmarks: $2.2 million

Contributions: $28,700

Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) has spent 13 of his 15 years as a congressman on the Appropriations Committee. Lobbyist Brad Ayers worked in Tiahrt’s office as a legislative assistant from 2001 to 2004. When Ayers started a solo lobbying practice at the end of 2004, one of his first clients was Radiance Technologies, an Alabama-based company with an office in Wichita. Ayers has donated $11,400 to Tiahrt since leaving his employ and Radiance’s political action committee and executives have donated $17,300 to the Kansan. Radiance benefitted from two 2008 earmarks requested by Tiahrt — one for “upward looking sonar” technology ($1 million) and the other for an “integrated vehicle health monitoring system” ($1.2 million). Last November, when the House Republican Conference created a committee to examine the earmark process in the House, Tiahrt helped strip out a provision that would have sought a stop to earmarks during the period of the committee’s inquiry. Ayers, Radiance, and Tiahrt’s office did not respond to the Center’s requests for comment.

Roger Wicker: One last earmark

Earmarks: $4.4 million

Contributions: $23,100

Before working for Tiahrt, Brad Ayers was a legislative assistant to a fellow Ole Miss alum, then-Representative Roger Wicker. Now the junior senator from Mississippi, Wicker spent 12 years in the House and served on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee until Governor Haley Barbour appointed him to his current position in December 2007. He won reelection in 2008. Radiance Technologies, which also operates an office in Oxford, Mississippi — in Wicker’s old district — also benefited from a $4.4 million 2008 earmark Wicker had requested, for work on an enhanced sensor system for the Army. Ayers donated $4,500 to his former boss; his client, Radiance, gave $8,000 in corporate PAC money to Wicker, and its executives, $10,600 to Wicker and his PAC. Wicker told the Center that the project was judged “solely on its merits.” Ayers previously told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that he and his clients don’t gain any advantage from his former employment.

Norm Dicks: Greetings from Torpedo Town

Earmarks: $2 million

Contributions: $39,300

The Kitsap Peninsula, nestled across the Puget Sound from Seattle, is home of “Torpedo Town USA” — Keyport, Wash., the epicenter of the country’s undersea warfare operations. In 2008, the region’s congressman, Norm Dicks, sent $2 million to Keyport and nearby Bremerton, flagged for defense giant SAIC to work on “underseas warfare.” SAIC had employed as a lobbyist Steve McBee, who worked as top adviser on military affairs for Dicks before beginning his K Street career. McBee started his own lobbying shop in 2002, and in 2007 The Hill named him one of the best “hired guns” in DC. SAIC’s political action committee has contributed $30,000 to the congressman’s campaign funds, with its top executives kicking in another $2,250. McBee has given his old boss $7,050.

George Behan, Dicks’ chief of staff, said SAIC’s PAC donations represent the support of its employees — Dicks’ constituents — for their representative. It doesn’t matter who lobbies for the company, Behan said. “When a question involves a few thousand employees, as in Keyport’s case, then we respond.” A spokesman for McBee Strategic Consulting also emphasized the firm’s close ties to Washington state; McBee is a native.

Dave Hobson: Pork-barrel congressman?

Earmarks: $2 million

Contributions: $10,750

Republican Dave Hobson, now president of the Ohio-based Vorys Advisors, LLC, represented the Buckeye State’s 7th District for 18 years. When Taxpayers for Common Sense ranked Hobson 22nd out of 435 House members for money directed to his district through earmarks, Hobson told the Dayton Daily News he wished he were closer to the top. David Williams of Citizens Against Government Waste told the paper in November that Hobson is “the epitome of a pork-barrel congressman.”

Navistar International’s PAC contributed $2,000 to Hobson’s campaign committee. The company’s subsidiary, International Truck and Engine Corp., hired Williams & Jensen PLLC lobbyist Michael Beer, who worked as a senior legislative aide to Hobson until he joined the firm 2003. In 2008, Hobson secured a $2 million Army earmark for the company to build diesel hybrid-electric utility vehicles. A Navistar spokesperson denied that the company was even involved in “this sort of network,” and noted that they support candidates “who share our approach to good public policy such as hybrid technology — which has helped put cleaner vehicles on the roads.” Hobson, Beer, and Williams & Jensen did not return calls and e-mail requests for comment.

Rodney Frelinghuysen and Steve Rothman: Bipartisan earmarkers

Frelinghuysen:Earmarks: $1.5 million

Contributions: $21,600

Rothman:Earmarks: SameContributions: $13,000

Earmarking has historically been a passion of both Democrats and Republicans. One duo, New Jersey Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen and his fellow Garden State congressman, Democrat Steve Rothman, joined forces to obtain a $1.5 million earmark for Frontier Performance Polymers Corp. The earmark funded research into “lightweight multi-functional material technology” — packaging for military gear that could lighten soldiers’ load. Robert Zucker, a former Rothman staffer, represents Frontier as a lobbyist at Winning Strategies Washington, as does Donna Mullins, a former Frelinghuysen aide.

“He’s a good friend of the congressman’s and of mine,” said Rothman’s chief of staff, Bob Decheine, of Zucker. Rothman supported the earmark based on its merits, according to Decheine: “It’s exhausting for [soldiers] to schlep this stuff around,” he said. Frontier founder and president Jerry Chung acknowledged in an interview with the Center that earmarks have been a problem for some defense contractors, but said that Congressmen Rothman and Frelinghuysen have both been supportive only because his company does “a very good job.”

Neither Frontier Performance Polymers nor any of its executives contributed to the congressmen’s campaigns. However, Zucker has donated $4,000 to Rothman’s campaign funds, and his firm’s political action committee has given an additional $9,000. Mullins gave Frelinghuysen $9,600, and Winning Strategies’ PAC gave him an additional $12,000. Neither lobbyist responded to a request for comment.

Have lobbyist links been broken?

After regaining both houses of Congress in the November 2006 elections, the new Democratic leadership moved quickly to pass rules changes and legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed in January 2007, “We have broken the link between lobbyists and legislation.” Though the new majority’s reforms included expanded lobbyist disclosure requirements, restrictions on favors lobbyists can do for members, and increased earmark transparency, critics warned at the time that it left loopholes for earmarks.

Despite the increased amount of data about what is in earmarks and who requests them, they continue to be used extensively by members to direct executive branch spending. The controversial PMA scandal — and all of the earmarks examined by the Center — took place under the reformed system. Some have proposed additional measures to curb earmarks. New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes has proposed making it illegal for members of Congress to take campaign contributions from those who benefit from their earmarks. Arizona Republican Jeff Flake supports this legislation and has offered similar proposals of his own. “No member of Congress should be able to award no-bid contracts — which is what many earmarks are — to private companies or other institutions,” Flake argued in a statement he released in April. “Earmarks aren’t a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. They are a problem that infects the entire Congress.”

Over the first half of 2009, Flake brought eight resolutions to the House floor, each demanding an ethics committee investigation of PMA. Though each proposal was decisively killed, mostly along party lines, a June 3 resolution by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was sent to the ethics committee on a 270-134 vote, instructing the committee to announce whether it is investigating any members or employees of the House relating to PMA. Eight days later, the committee confirmed in a statement that it was already reviewing the matter.

Little is known about the Justice Department probe into PMA and the subcommittee. It’s been widely reported that Justice is investigating the possibility of illegal campaign contribution reimbursements by Magliocchetti. Defense contractors close to Murtha have also been raided by the FBI, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, and the IRS. Some of Congressman Visclosky’s records were subpoenaed in the spring by a grand jury looking into defense contracts. Two corporate executives and an Air Force official pleaded guilty this summer for their roles in a kickback scheme involving money from a Murtha-sponsored project; a third corporate executive was found guilty by a jury.

An FBI spokesman acknowledged, in a statement, that search warrants were executed at Kuchera Industries and Kuchera Defense Systems — recipients of Murtha-directed earmarks — earlier this year, but declined to confirm or comment on any pending investigations. The PMA Group was searched last November, according to several news accounts (Kuchera has never been a PMA client).

Investigators face a high bar to prove wrongdoing involving members of Congress in regard to their official actions. Stan Brand, a defense attorney with experience in public corruption cases and a former House of Representatives general counsel, told the Center that the sorts of relationship circles involving subcommittee members do not, on their own, indicate criminal malfeasance. From a legal standpoint, he notes, identifying such ties are “similar to saying the rooster crows every morning and causes the sun to come up. … You must have evidence of a direct nexus” to prove bribery.

The real costs of defense earmarks

Members of Congress defend their earmarks by pointing to benefits they bring to the Defense Department, and argue that the executive branch’s priorities aren’t always the right ones. But many knowledgeable defense experts contend that congressional earmarks may actually be harming national security. Defense secretary Robert Gates is among them.

“The Secretary believes there is a very real tradeoff with very real consequences when Congress adds money we didn’t ask for,” said Geoff Morell, the Pentagon’s press secretary, because “in an era of constraint which we’re entering, congressional additions are causing us to take money from programs that we view as more important.”

“So it comes at a cost to us, even if the up-front money is appropriated above and beyond what our budget request is,” Morell said. He used as an example the C-17 cargo plane, which has been repeatedly added to the defense budget the past several years. “Despite the fact that it’s a terrific plane, we have enough of them,” he said. And it’s not just about buying more planes. “Once they’re bought,” he added, “we have to maintain them, we have to staff them, and provide logistics.”

Former Senate staffer Wheeler goes farther. He says that earmarks are rarely additions to the budget, but are often funded by reducing the Defense Department’s operations and maintenance accounts — critical accounts used to keep troops supplied and trained and to repair vehicles and equipment.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the House cut more than $9 billion from the president’s fiscal year 2008 budget request, even as it added billions of dollars in earmarks and other additions — resulting in a net decrease of $3.55 billion. Among the reductions were cuts in the Army’s request for operations and maintenance and Navy and Air Force training budgets for units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Data Editor David Donald and staff writers Sarah Laskow, Nick Schwellenbach, Kate Willson, Caitlin Ginley, and Laura Cheek contributed to this article.