DOD officials junket to Johnstown

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The Center’s investigative report, Pentagon Travel, revealed that over a decade’s time, Defense Department employees took thousands of trips paid for by outside sources. Turns out a handful of those trips were to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a former coal and steel mining town of some 27,000 people that’s been getting plenty of attention — from both DOD personnel and federal law enforcement officials.

Much of the attention likely has to do with the hundreds of millions of dollars directed to Johnstown and the surrounding region through earmarks by its congressional representative, Democrat John P. Murtha, chair of the powerful House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Those earmarks and their recipients are now drawing a variety of scrutiny.

One of the trips to Johnstown took place from May 31 to June 1, 2007, and involved seven Air Force officials, including Charles D. Riechers, then the number-two acquisition official and William A. Davidson, the top adviser to the Secretary of the Air Force. The officials attended Johnstown’s annual Showcase for Commerce, known unofficially as “MurthaFest,” a conference that features local as well as large defense contractors. The organizers of the conference are the Johnstown Chamber of Commerce and Johnstown Area Regional Industries, a non-profit that assists local businesses. The organizers of the Showcase waived $2,100 in total conference registration fees for the Air Force officials.

“The fee to view the [Showcase] exhibits was waived for all government personnel as mutually beneficial to both parties,” said Gary T. Strasburg, an Air Force spokesman. He said the personnel were also conducting other Air Force business in the area.

The conference fee arrangement was “accepted as a gift of travel to the government, not the individual,” Strasburg said, and “all other travel costs were born by the government.” Furthermore, the arrangement was examined by ethics authorities. And despite the Showcase’s theme of government contracting, “there were no contracts let as a result of this trip,” according to Strasburg.

But a controversial contract with a Johnstown-based contractor involving at least two of those officials on that trip was arranged earlier.

Half a year before the Showcase for Commerce visit, Riechers was paid $26,800 for a two-month span from November 27, 2006, through January 25, 2007, by Johnstown-based Commonwealth Research Institute (CRI), as part of an Air Force technical assistance contract. Commonwealth is part of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, the largest beneficiary of federal earmarks in the Johnstown area. At Commonwealth, Riechers assisted Sue C. Payton, the assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, while he waited for the White House to confirm him for an Air Force position. On January 26, 2007, Riechers re-entered the government as Payton’s deputy.

Davidson, the assistant to the secretary of the Air Force, arranged Riechers’ contract with Commonwealth, according to The Washington Post. Davidson told the Post, “I believe use of the CRI contract was not only legal but ethical.”

Riechers committed suicide weeks after the Post ran a story in Oct. 2007 on his contract with Commonwealth — a story that questioned the propriety of using contractors to employ officials while they wait to be confirmed for government positions.

The Defense Department Office of Inspector General has been reviewing the circumstances under which Riechers provided contract support services to Sue Payton prior to his confirmation. However, “the issuance of the report has been delayed due to other ongoing investigations,” Gary Comerford, spokesman for the inspector general, told PaperTrail. A GAO press release in December 2008 said "federal government investigative authorities are conducting an ongoing investigation into 'the root cause' of Mr. Riecher's death…” An FBI spokesman, Bill Carter, said it is the bureau’s policy “to neither confirm or deny investigations.”

Besides the trip involving Riechers, among the other trips to Johnstown are these:

• Several sponsored by the Technology Innovation and Teacher Education Collaborative, a partnership of several universities and MountainTop Technologies. The municipal office of Monongahela, Pennsylvania, was served a subpoena last fall by federal investigators seeking information about a Justice Department grant steered towards MountainTop, according to the Post. MountainTop is the Murtha-backed recipient of at least $36 million in earmarks and military contracts. It also operates the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.

• A trip in February 2004, during which two officials from the National Naval Medical Center met with Murtha in Johnstown on the topic of "a comprehensive neuroscience program." The trip was paid for by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advance of Military Medicine, Inc., a non-profit that connects the Defense Department with the broader healthcare industry. Months earlier, ground was broken on a facility that is part of a congressionally-created neuroscience program, according to the foundation. The name of the facility? The John P. Murtha Neuroscience and Pain Institute.

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