Kerry Lobbied for Contractor Who Made Illegal Contributions
Sen. John F. Kerry sent 28 letters in behalf of a San Diego defense contractor who pleaded guilty last week to illegally funneling campaign contributions to the Massachusetts senator and four other congressmen.
Members of Congress often write letters supporting constituent businesses and favored projects. But as the Democratic presidential front-runner, Kerry has promoted himself as a candidate who has never been beholden to campaign contributors and special interests.
Between 1996 and 1999, Kerry participated in a letter-writing campaign to free up federal funds for a guided missile system that defense contractor Parthasarathi “Bob” Majumder was trying to build for U.S. warplanes.
Majumder’s firm, Science and Applied Technology Inc., was paid more than $150 million to design and develop the program in the 1990s. But the program ran into some stumbling blocks at the Pentagon.
Kerry’s letters were sent to fellow members of Congress -- and to the Pentagon -- while Majumder and his employees were donating money to the senator, court records show. During the three-year period, Kerry received about $25,000 from Majumder and his employees, according to Dwight L. Morris & Associates, which tracks campaign donations.
Court documents say the contractor told his employees they needed to make political contributions in order for him to gain influence with members of Congress. He then reimbursed them with proceeds from government contracts.
Federal prosecutors initially determined that $13,000 of the donations were illegally reimbursed, but they now say that nearly all of the money was tainted. They said there was no evidence Kerry or other members of Congress would have known that.
Asked what he did to repay the money, Kerry’s campaign said Wednesday he had donated $13,000 to charity on Feb. 9 -- which was two days before Majumder’s guilty plea.
Kerry’s campaign said the candidate’s actions had nothing to do with the campaign contributions. One of the subcontractors working on the guided missile project, Millitech Inc., was based in Northampton, Mass.
Campaign senior advisor Michael Meehan said Kerry was concerned that the military project was on hold and might jeopardize work for people in his home state.
“Kerry has made a career of going to bat for Massachusetts companies and bottlenecks they might have with the federal government. It’s part of his job,” Meehan said.
“It was a small company. It wasn’t a big military firm that had all kinds of influence at the Pentagon.”
Millitech specializes in the design, engineering and manufacture of components and systems needed in satellite communications, radar and remote sensing. According to a statement last year by the company, Millitech employs 80 people.
In the mid-1990s, Kerry visited the primary contractor in San Diego that Millitech had teamed up with on the guided missile project. And some employees at Science and Applied Technology attended a fundraiser for Kerry.
Kerry sent at least 21 letters to the secretary of the Navy, the secretary of Defense, the Defense Department comptroller and to members of the House and the Senate committees that control and finance military contracts.
Court files show Kerry had sent copies of some letters to seven other people.
All include Kerry’s appeal that the project be funded, and each year, the letters seemed to produce results. The federal money followed.
“It obviously raises questions about whether the campaign contributions bought action from Kerry,” said Steven Weiss, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group in Washington that tracks the effect of money on elections and public policy.
“It also poses a situation that all elected officials face: raising questions about what effect, if any, campaign contributions have on the actions of lawmakers.”
Last week Majumder, 52, pleaded guilty to two counts of illegal campaign contributions. He could be sentenced to six years in prison. The government dropped 38 other counts.
Majumder admitted giving illegal contributions to Kerry and Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-San Diego), Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) and former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), totaling more than $95,000. To settle a civil suit, Majumder has agreed to repay $3 million to the federal government.
U.S. Atty. Carol Lam, declining to be interviewed about the case or answer questions submitted in writing, issued a one-sentence response through a spokeswoman: “The investigation did not reveal any evidence that the elected officials were aware of Majumder’s illegal activity.”
Majumder, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in India, began working on the missile program in 1989 -- and established his company -- with a $50,000 grant from the federal government. Federal funding increased over time. But in 1996, the Defense Department proposed rescinding $35 million for the project and not funding it in the future.
Kerry joined with other senators to protest. Congress reinserted the money into the budget, but the Navy held onto the funds.
“Mr. Secretary, I ask that you advise me immediately on the grounds on which the Navy refuses to release these funds,” Kerry wrote to then-Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton on Aug. 13, 1996.
“Development of this important program already has been delayed by the unnecessary delays in funding. This not only is resulting in our air forces being unable to benefit from the protection the AARGM has the potential to offer them, but also soon will require the contractor to terminate its personnel associated with this project.”
In 1997, funding for the program was put on hold again. Kerry joined Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California in writing to then-Undersecretary of Defense John Hamre on March 10, 1997.
“We would appreciate your informing us of the current status of the funding. If it is being held by your office, we request that you release it to the Navy for program execution as soon as possible.”
The letter from the three Democrats seemed to work. On March 27, Hamre wrote back to say he had released the money.
Kerry wrote other letters to Republican and Democratic senators on the appropriations committee, asking that they include $55 million in the 1998 spending bill for “an important military research and development program that will greatly improve the self-protection capability of our close air support aircraft.”
He wrote again in 1998, urging that senators give the program an additional $15 million.
Meehan, his campaign advisor, said Wednesday that Kerry felt that, as a Massachusetts lawmaker, he should question why the money was being held up.
“Congress had appropriated funds, but the Pentagon was slow to release the money. Kerry and others wrote to ask why,” Meehan said, characterizing the letters as “the battle of the legislature vs. a particular branch of the government.”
John Valkus, a close friend of Majumder, said the contractor turned to making political contributions “so he could play in the same league as the big boys: Lockheed and Raytheon.”
“It’s very hard for the little guy to get noticed,” Valkus said. “If he had stayed with small components he would have been fine, but he wanted to do something big. He knew how the weapon-system prime contractor game is played.”
But Majumder told his employees, subcontractors and friends that he would pay them back for their contributions, which is illegal. Some employees got bonuses, court records indicate.
One employee who gave Kerry two $1,000 contributions got two envelopes in return from Majumder -- each with 10 $100 bills, the indictment said.
Judy Sherman contributed $2,000 to Kerry at Majumder’s request. Her husband was a subcontractor on the missile project.
“Part of your contract was he reimbursed you. It wasn’t any money out of your pocket,” she said. “You wouldn’t keep your contract if you didn’t do it.”
She said she remembered having to go to a Kerry fundraiser because she was a Republican.
“My husband said, ‘There’s a lunch we have to go to.’ I said, ‘Who for?’ He said Kerry. I said, ‘Kerry?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Does Dr. Bob want us to?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ Basically that was it.”
Majumder hired lobbyists in Washington, who advised him that it was smart politics to curry favor with both Republicans and Democrats.
One of the lobbyists was James Dykstra, the former deputy assistant Defense secretary for legislative affairs. Kerry’s staff wrote to Dykstra in 1999, records show, sending him copies of all the correspondence the senator had with the committees that oversaw Majumder’s project.
“I look forward to working with you on these and other issues of mutual interest,” wrote Celes E. Hughes, Kerry’s legislative assistant for defense and foreign policy.
The Majumder case isn’t the first time that Kerry received tainted campaign money.
In September 1996, Taiwanese American entrepreneur Johnny Chung held a fundraiser for Kerry in Beverly Hills. He later pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions, including $8,000 raised at the Beverly Hills event.
Kerry’s Senate office arranged a high-level meeting for Chung at the Securities and Exchange Commission within a few days of the fundraiser.
The contract to Majumder’s firm involved an effort to improve technology to allow missiles to destroy ground-based radar systems even after those systems have been switched off and are no longer emitting radiation.
Missiles now can be struck “dumb” and veer off course from their targets when radar-equipped anti-aircraft systems are turned off.
Knowing of this shortcoming of U.S. weaponry, adversaries, including Iraq under Saddam Hussein, use a “shoot and scoot” strategy of firing at U.S. warplanes and then rapidly moving their missile launchers.
The U.S. has long wanted a missile that will eliminate this threat to U.S. warplanes. By the mid-1990s, Majumder’s project had gained a sympathetic hearing from two local members of Congress, both of whom specialize in matters of defense and military technology.
“He came up with an idea to solve a problem that the big boys [such as Lockheed and Raytheon] couldn’t,” said Hunter, now chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Cunningham, a decorated Navy pilot in Vietnam, said the technology is crucial to saving the lives of pilots and ensuring the success of combat missions that include air strikes.
The Department of Defense has continued to fund the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile to Alliant Techsystems, the Minnesota defense firm that bought Majumder’s company after the government began its investigation into illegal contributions. Work has continued and tests on the system are set for next year.
Getter reported from Washington and Perry from San Diego.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Coming to Missile Program’s Defense
Below are excerpts from letters Sen. John F. Kerry wrote in behalf of the missile system a San Diego defense contractor was trying to build for U.S. warplanes. The contractor, Parthasarathi “Bob” Majumder, has pleaded guilty to illegally funneling campaign contributions to five congressmen, including Kerry.
Aug. 13, 1996
On July 1, 1996, Under Secretary of Defense and Comptroller John Hamre wrote to Senators Kennedy, Feinstein and me to advise us “on behalf of Secretary [of Defense William] Perry” that, in accord with our earlier request and following Congressional rejection of a Defense Department rescission request for the funds, he had released on June 19, 1996, $35 million in Fiscal Year 1996 funds for the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM) program.
Today, nearly two months later, I am advised that the Department of the Navy Comptroller still refuses to release the funds....
Mr. Secretary, I ask that you advise me immediately of the grounds on which the Navy refuses to release these funds and why it is contravening the earlier actions of the Department of Defense Comptroller....
I ask that you examine this matter personally and expeditiously, and act to release the $35 million in 1996 funds for this program....
To John H. Dalton, secretary of the Navy
March 10, 1997
It has come to our attention that Fiscal Year 1997 funds have been put on hold for an important Navy research and development program.... We are writing to ask that these funds be released as soon as possible....
We would appreciate your informing us of the current status of the funding. If it is being held by your office, we request that you release it to the Navy for program execution as soon as possible.
-- Written with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)
to John J. Hamre, under secretary of Defense/Comptroller for the Department of Defense
April 21, 1997
I write to request your support for continuing an important military research and development program that will greatly improve the self-protection capability of our close air support aircraft. The Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM) program will replace the old seeker in the HARM missile with a new Anti-Radiation Homing (ARH) seeker and add a MMW (Millimeter Wave) terminal radar....
I ask that you include $55 million in your FY 1998 bill ... for this program continuation.
To Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, at the time a ranking Democratic member on the appropriations committee
Source: Times research
Los Angeles Times