House ethics panel clears 'Murtha Method' representatives

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The House ethics committee ended its investigation of the last two defense appropriators remaining in its crosshairs, according to a report released today. It found no causal link between campaign contributions and earmarking activities of any of the seven members reviewed over the last year. The two members cleared today were Republican Todd Tiarht of Kansas and Indiana Democrat Pete Visclosky.

Tiarht and Visclosky were among several members of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee identified in a web of cozy relationships with their earmark recipients in The Center for Public Integrity’s “Murtha Method” investigation, named after the panel’s late chairman, John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, who died earlier this month. While the ethics committee did clear both lawmakers, its report did identify “troubling” behavior by the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group that was at the center of the panel’s probe.

“PMA employed ‘strong-arm’ tactics, threatening to withdraw financial support or encourage businesses to relocate out of a Member’s district if Members did not reverse policies opposing earmarks,” the House ethics report states. “In these instances, Members and their staff refused to change their positions and, in one case, notified the Standards Committee.”

And while “PMA’s lobbyists pushed or directed company executives to maximize personal or Political Action Committee (PAC) campaign contributions and to attend specific fundraisers while pursuing earmarks,” the report notes, “the evidence did not show that Members or their official staff were included in discussions or correspondence about, coordinated with PMA on, or knew of these strategies.”

The report notes the “widespread perception” that “campaign contributions provide enhanced access to Members or a greater chance of obtaining earmarks.” But, it said there were “equal, if not more, instances of companies questioning why they had not obtained an earmark after making substantial campaign contributions to Members.”

In January, the ethics committee ended its probe of the five other members of the subcommittee, including Reps. Murtha; Norman Dicks, D-Wash.; Jim Moran, D-Va.; Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; and C.W. “Bill” Young, R-Fla.. Dicks is considered Murtha’s likely successor to become chairman.

The House ethics committee, known officially as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said there were no violations of House rules by any of the seven subcommittee members that were the subject of scrutiny.

The ethics committee “found no evidence that Members or their official staff considered campaign contributions as a factor when requesting earmarks,” according to today’s report, and “further found no evidence that Members or their official staff were directly or indirectly engaged in seeking contributions in return for earmarks.”

“Rather, the evidence showed that earmarks were evaluated based upon criteria independent of campaign contributions, such as the number of jobs created in the Member’s district or the value to the taxpayer or the U.S. military, and without Members or their official staff linking, or being aware that companies may have intended to link, contributions with earmarks,” the report said.

All of these representatives, except for Kaptur, were identified in the Center’s investigation. The Murtha Method matched members of the subcommittee, companies receiving earmarks sponsored by them, and former staffers of those members who became lobbyists for those companies.

The report reiterates the longstanding view by congressional ethics committees that campaign contributions from entities that benefit from official legislative acts do not constitute a bribe or conflict of interest.

In support of this interpretation, the ethics committee pointed to a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Authored by Justice Byron White, the court said that if official acts by public officials that benefitted campaign donors are considered a quid pro quo without further evidence, it would “open to prosecution not only conduct that has long been thought to be well within the law, but also conduct that, in a very real sense, is unavoidable so long as election campaigns are financed by private contributions or expenditures, as they have been from the beginning of the Nation.”

Tiarht said the report cleared him of any wrongdoing.

“I received absolute vindication,” Tiahrt said in a statement. “The process referenced in the report reflects the same professional and objective procedures followed in my office for reviewing and requesting defense-related projects for Boeing and other reputable Kansas-based companies that employ thousands of Kansas workers in my district.”

A spokesman in Visclosky’s D.C. office could not be reached for comment. Records in Visclosky’s congressional office were subpoenaed last spring by a grand jury believed to be examining defense contracts and his office.