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A ‘Murtha Method’ encore

Lawmakers on House defense panel still enmeshed in circles of earmarks, lobbyists, and campaign cash

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A review of the 2010 defense appropriations process reveals that most members of a key House of Representatives panel continue to engage in controversial relationships involving ex-staffers-turned-lobbyists, contractors, campaign cash, and earmarks — the sorts of relationships that have led to investigations swirling around several panel members, including its chairman, Pennsylvania Democrat John P. Murtha.

Last month, the Center reported that in 2008, 12 out of 16 members of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee earmarked around $100 million for firms involved in similar circles of potential influence. Critics, including some representatives, say the relationships, at a minimum, create the appearance of corrupting the integrity of the public spending process.

The Center’s new review — relying on lobbyist registration and campaign finance data — found similar relationships involving 10 of the 16 current members of the House panel. In the House version of next year’s defense spending bill, those members obtained 30 earmarks worth $103 million that reward contractors currently or recently employing former personal or subcommittee staffers who have become lobbyists. These lawmakers also all have received campaign cash from the earmark recipients or lobbyists. As in 2008, the 2010 earmarks are for projects that were not requested in the administration’s budget proposal for the Defense Department.

The vast majority of these former staffers lobbied the House specifically on the 2010 defense appropriation bill; however, the Center also counted earmark recipients who had used a former staffer as a lobbyist within the last two years. “In some cases, it may be that once a company has got its foot in the door, they can keep getting the earmarks,” said Barbara Sinclair, a political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Two of the subcommittee members included in the 2008 report, Republican Reps. Dave Hobson of Ohio and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, are no longer in the House of Representatives. A third, Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, remains on the panel but did not show up in our analysis of the 2010 earmarks. One new member of the subcommittee, Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Ky.), made the 2010 list.

Overall, though, it appears little has changed in the subcommittee, despite months of intense media scrutiny, law enforcement investigations, and an ethics committee inquiry swirling around a now-defunct lobbying firm, the PMA Group, that was filled with former subcommittee aides. PMA’s offices were raided by federal investigators in November 2008, and the firm closed shortly thereafter. Earlier this year one subcommittee member, Indiana Democrat Peter Visclosky, was issued a federal grand jury subpoena seeking documents related to PMA, which lobbied for several recipients of earmarks that he sponsored.

A spokesman for Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a critic of earmarks, said Flake hopes that as a result of the PMA investigation, the House ethics committee will advise members of Congress that they have a conflict of interest if they receive campaign contributions from earmark recipients. The House ethics committee is already investigating ties between PMA and members of Congress and their staffs.

The Senate passed its version of the 2010 defense appropriations bill on Tuesday; a conference committee will meet to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill in the coming weeks.

The Center’s analysis relied on data provided by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the U.S. Senate’s Office of Public Records. The Center built off of an earlier review of the subcommittee’s earmarks and campaign contributions by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Among the Center’s findings:

  • Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.), Murtha, and the subcommittee’s top Republican, C.W. Bill Young of Florida, still give earmarks to companies that had at one time been represented by ex-congressional office or committee staffers working for the PMA Group. When asked about the four former staffers who have registered as lobbyists for firms receiving earmarks from Young, his spokesman told the Center that two of them had never directly lobbied his office.
  • Even after PMA’s demise, lobbyists who had been part of the controversial firm kept many of their clients as they left to join other companies or started new firms of their own. Former Moran chief of staff Melissa Koloszar, for example, represented DDL Omni Engineering LLC at PMA prior to her departure from the now-defunct lobby shop. She now is registered as the engineering firm’s lobbyist through her new firm, MKG Consulting LLC. Moran sponsored a $2 million earmark for DDL Omni in the 2010 House defense appropriations bill for an “Air Readiness/Effectiveness Measurement (AIREM) Program.” Since 2005, DDL executives have given Moran $11,200 in campaign cash. In addition, Koloszar has contributed $13,400 to her former boss.
  • Though the overall number of earmarks in the House version of the 2010 appropriations bill and their total value declined slightly from 2008, the value of earmarks that involve the controversial circle of relationships remained about the same. The Center analysis found more than $103 million in such earmarks in the 2010 House defense appropriations bill, compared to more than $104 million in the final 2008 legislation.
  • The circles involved not just veteran subcommittee members but a 15-term representative who is new to the panel this year; Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Ky.) sponsored a $3 million earmark for Ensign-Bickford Aerospace and Defense, a firm that had recently been represented by a former Rogers staffer, Elizabeth “Sissy” Pressnell. Rogers has received campaign cash from Ensign-Bickford executives in recent years. “Campaign contributions and who lobbies for a particular company have never and will never impact the decisions I make on behalf of Kentucky’s citizens,” Rogers told the Center. “My decisions on which programs and projects to support are based solely on the merits and whether or not I believe it will make a positive impact on our country.”
  • Reps. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Kay Granger (R-Texas), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Steven Rothman (D-N.J.), Murtha, and Young gave earmarks to the same contractors as in 2008. Some are repeat earmarks for the very same programs. A spokesman for Granger told the Center, “As we have confirmed before, the former-staffer mentioned never lobbied Congresswoman Granger or her staff, was not employed by the firm at the time of the request, and never lobbied Congress on the named projects.” Kingston’s spokesman noted that in his case a staffer-turned-lobbyist “recused herself from any consideration of the project during her time in this office and is currently unable to even inform, much less lobby, our office of any clients or projects on which she is working due to ethics laws.” The staffer in question, Heather McNatt, worked for Kingston, left his office and lobbied for L-3 Communications, then returned to Kingston’s office as his chief of staff. She now lobbies for L-3 once again. In both 2008 and 2010, Kingston earmarked taxpayer money for L-3 or one of its subsidiaries.
  • The issuance of subpoenas to Visclosky’s office has apparently chilled his earmarking habit, though he hasn’t kicked it entirely: In the FY2008 defense bill he had 23 earmarks approved, mostly for companies; in 2010 he requested only three earmarks, and all three were for universities or state government in Indiana. Two of those earmarks went to the University of Notre Dame, which hired a former Visclosky staffer as its lobbyist.
  • In contrast with 2008, many of the circles in these 2010 earmarks involved non-profits — including the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the Stevens Institute of Technology, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Washington. These entities used the same means of influence employed by more traditional defense contractors. Rep. Dicks, for instance, obtained a $5.8 million earmark for the University of Washington’s Institute for Simulation and Interprofessional Studies. A university spokesman denied that Tom Luce, a former aide to Dicks, had ever lobbied Congress on its behalf, though at least seven public lobbying disclosure filings by Luce’s firm indicate otherwise.

The Center’s findings do not indicate criminal behavior. But government reform groups say the practices represent the worst of Washington’s revolving door culture, and are little more than legalized corruption. The lobbyists, the members of Congress, and the earmark recipients say the relationships are entirely legal, and none of the representatives has been charged with wrongdoing.

Bill Allison of the non-profit Sunlight Foundation, and a former Center staffer, wrote earlier this year that “while the PMA Group scandal is different from [convicted ex-lobbyist Jack] Abramoff, in many ways it’s more serious. … Abramoff’s excesses were fairly unique; PMA Group’s business model is standard operating procedure in Washington.”

Indeed, even with the closing of PMA earlier this year, the resilience of earmarks involving these circles of relationships, critics say, is a testament to the benefits gained for the many parties involved:

  • Lawmakers who receive campaign cash from the beneficiaries of earmarks and who tout the jobs they bring to their districts;
  • The companies that receive — through earmarks — a large return on investment for their lobbying expenses and campaign contributions;
  • And the former staffers of members on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee who as lobbyists profit handsomely on relations made during their time in public service.

Representative Flake, a prominent opponent of earmarking, filed several hundred amendments aimed at striking individual earmarks during House consideration of the bill. Though most of Flake’s several hundred amendments were rolled into one amendment for consideration, three of these earmarks — two by Murtha and one by Young — were considered individually. Each was kept in the bill by strong bipartisan majority.

Data Editor David Donald contributed to this article.