House ethics office asks for DoJ probe of earmarks

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The House Office of Congressional Ethics has asked the Justice Department to probe the relationship between campaign contributions and earmarks based on evidence the ethics office collected while examining the now-defunct PMA Group.

The evidence will not be made public, despite requests to do so from Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H. The ethics office reports to the House Ethics Committee, which reviewed the evidence and cleared seven members of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, according to a news release issued by the ethics office.

Earmarks issued by members of the subcommittee were the subject of two investigative stories by the Center, dubbed The Murtha Method, after the late chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. The stories looked at the earmarks’ relationship with campaign cash received by lawmakers and the revolving door of former congressional staffers-turned-lobbyists.

The ethics office’s February report illustrated how these connections are viewed by members of Congress, their staff, lobbyists, and corporate executives. It found that “certain persons and companies saw their campaign donations as affecting decisions about earmarks.”

For example, Gabrielle Carruth, a former staffer for Murtha who became a lobbyist for Argon ST Inc. in 2008, seemed to view campaign contributions as an award in exchange for past earmarks and as a way to help win new ones.

Gabrielle Carruth and the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. (Photo courtesy Northeastern University Alumni Magazine)

As an Argon lobbyist, Carruth sent a Sept. 19, 2008, e-mail to Argon’s Jay Grove, congratulating him on a $6 million earmark. Then she wrote, “As a company Congress helped us out with 29.6 million dollars of enhancements, most coming from Mr. Murtha. He has [sic] having one last fundraiser at the Army and Navy club Tuesday. I really could use your help with a contribution.”

Grove responded that he could not contribute due to a death in his family.

In another e-mail, Carruth wrote to Argon executives inviting them to a fundraiser for Murtha in early 2008.

“We have maxed out our PAC contributions so I am also looking for personal contribtutions [sic] to his campaign and to this [sic] Leadership PAC,” she wrote. “The Chairman has been very helpful to us over the years and we will again be asking for his support this year on a number of issues important [to] our company and industry.”

Carruth, now a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest defense contractor, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Both politicians and outside entities can set up political action committees (PACs). Defense contractors and other companies cannot donate directly to political campaigns, but employees can donate to company PACs that in turn give money to candidates.

Richard Ianieri, a former Argon executive, wrote back and said would list himself as an employee of Coherent Systems International. Argon acquired Coherent in 2007.

Ianieri, Coherent’s former CEO, pled guilty last year to involvement in a kickback scheme where a subcontractor to his company on an earmark-funded contract paid him $200,000 in bribes.

The FBI earlier this week publicly acknowledged that a criminal investigation related to Murtha has not concluded. The Bureau released clippings of news articles related to the issues it was probing, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests filed after Murtha’s death, including a FOIA by the Center. However, “the bulk of the file’s FBI documents are not releasable until the conclusion of the investigation” by the FBI’s Pittsburgh office “into allegations of kickbacks involving government defense contractors.”

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