Democrats marked by ethical questions

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Times Staff Writers

Though incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promises to push through ethical reforms in Congress, both of the Democrats vying to be her second-in-command have long histories of earmarking, close relationships with corporate interests, and using their positions to raise millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

Pelosi’s choice for the job, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, used his seat on the appropriations committee and the largely secret earmark process to obtain $121 million in earmarks during the current session, making him one of the top earmarkers in Congress, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Murtha, a tough-talking veteran who made headlines last year by denouncing President Bush’s policy in Iraq, directed much of the money to firms and institutions in Johnstown, Pa., in his district. Defense contractors and other beneficiaries dominated a list of Murtha’s top campaign contributors.


Murtha was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, which has prompted some to support the other man seeking the House majority leader’s job -- Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland -- as the more ethical candidate.

Hoyer, also on appropriations, sent $61.7 million to his district just outside of Washington during this Congress, the watchdog group says. That put him among the top 10% of earmarkers in the House. The earmarks frequently benefited local defense contractors.

In the 2006 defense appropriations bill, for example, Hoyer secured $2.8 million for ManTech International Corp., which has a facility in his district that is developing a military project. ManTech’s executives and its political action committee have donated $49,000 to Hoyer’s campaign and leadership funds since 2001.

David Sirota, a former House Appropriations Committee aide who wrote the recently published book “Hostile Takeover” decrying corporate influence on the Democratic Party, said he was concerned about the records of Murtha and Hoyer.

“In my book I wrote that a top legislative staffer to Hoyer simultaneously served as a top corporate fundraiser for Hoyer, helping raise money for his leadership PAC,” he said.

“There is nothing illegal about that, but it definitely makes a joke of the idea that Hoyer is the ethics candidate in this race,” said Sirota, who supports Murtha for the post.


Federal Election Commission records show Murtha also employed at least one staffer to do campaign work.


Cloaked in secrecy

Earmarking, and the symbiotic relationship it often creates between members of Congress and corporate and other interest groups, has become a symbol of the ethical laxity that Democrats campaigned against in last week’s midterm election.

Earmarking is a form of pork-barrel spending often favored by committee chairmen, congressional leaders and other insiders. Cloaked in secrecy, it enables favored members to bypass the normal budget and appropriations process and insert narrowly drawn spending provisions into legislation.

Though not new, the practice has exploded in recent years. In the most flagrant cases, members have used the process for personal enrichment. In other cases, the spending provisions appear to have been used as a kind of quid pro quo to reward campaign contributors and other supporters.

Earmarks played a role in the Jack Abramoff scandal and the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).

They have also led to federal investigations, including an inquiry involving Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), outgoing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.


Even when illegal or improper conduct was not at issue, earmarks for campaign contributors have been at the heart of the increasing role of money in politics. Murtha and Hoyer have been senior members of the House Appropriations Committee; its members are usually among the leading earmarkers and also major fundraisers for their parties.

Hoyer told a website this week that he did not favor ending the earmarks system, but said he supported reform and greater transparency so the public would know what was happening.

An aide said Hoyer supported “comprehensive earmark reform that would require full disclosure, including the sponsor. He also believes that all conference reports should be available for members to scrutinize before they are voted on, and should not have last-minute earmarks included, as has been the practice under Republicans.”


Dealings with business

Hoyer has been a vigorous player of the traditional earmarking game.

For example, he has obtained more than $7 million in recent years for the manufacturer of Beretta firearms, which has a facility in his district and manufactures the 9-millimeter pistols used by the Marines. In effect, the earmark required the Pentagon to buy ammunition clips from Beretta USA. In an earlier purchase, the military had obtained clips from another supplier that had submitted the lowest bid; Hoyer said the cheaper clips had sometimes malfunctioned.

At least one Beretta executive has contributed to Hoyer’s campaign fund.

Murtha is no stranger to ethics controversies.

Some of his largest campaign contributions came from the clients of Washington lobbying firms that represent beneficiaries of his earmarks.

Among them is a firm, Ervin Technical Associates, chaired by a former House colleague, Joseph M. McDade, who was accused in 1992 of providing earmarks in exchange for campaign contributions and gifts. He was charged with bribery and racketeering for accepting gifts and other benefits from defense interests, but was acquitted.


McDade and other principals of the firm could not be reached for comment, but an independent contractor working with the firm said the firm had the highest integrity, and defended the need for earmarks generally.

Another firm associated with Murtha, the PMA Group, is led by Paul Magliocchetti, who worked with Murtha as a senior staffer on the defense appropriations subcommittee for a decade. The PMA Group and 11 of the firm’s clients rank in the top 20 contributors to Murtha, with campaign contributions totaling $274,649 in this election cycle, according to calculations by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group.

The 2004 defense appropriations bill provided earmarks for 10 companies represented by a lobbying firm in which his brother, Robert “Kit” Murtha, was a senior partner. The Los Angeles Times first reported in 2005 on Robert Murtha’s lobbying activities for the firm, KSA Consulting.

At the time, Robert Murtha and others at KSA said he did not lobby his brother and thus saw no problem in his lobbying others.


A new controversy

On Tuesday, a new controversy flared up. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call quoted Murtha as telling a group of Democrats that Pelosi’s ethics reforms were “total crap.”

Murtha said his remarks were misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately. He told MSNBC on Wednesday that he had been referring to illegal activities such as Abramoff’s, not to the reforms.


“What Nancy is trying to do is important,” he told host Chris Matthews.

“What I said was, it’s total crap, the idea we have to deal with an issue like this ... when we’ve got a war going on,” Murtha said.

Murtha first gained national attention decades ago as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam investigation into congressional corruption. In a videotaped interview with the FBI agent posing as a sheik, Murtha was offered $50,000 to help the sheik.

“I’m not interested. I’m sorry,” Murtha told the FBI agent, but added: “At this point. You know, we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t.”

Murtha did not respond to requests for comment, but he told MSNBC that he knew the fake sheik was trying to corrupt him, but that he led him on in hopes of luring investment to his hard-pressed district. “I deal with people like this all the time,” he told Matthews.