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Murtha Earmarks Funded Garment Company’s Sonar Project

For the past several years, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) has funneled more than $3 million in earmarks to a company in his district to build an underwater “swimmer detection” sonar system for the Navy to use to protect its docks and ships.

But the company, KDH Defense Systems, sews bulletproof vests. It had never built a sonar system and had no expertise in sonar engineering. The sonar project was to be the first product of a new “startup” company.

Documents indicate the company did have a plan — which never came to pass — to partner with other local defense contractors close to Murtha, and it also had the assistance of a lobbying firm that employed both Murtha’s brother and his former appropriations aide.

The firm ultimately ended up hiring a British company to do the engineering, fell into a dispute, lost its original military customer and by the end of last year had completed a prototype, which the company president said would have to be re-engineered before it can be produced in any quantity.

Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey said the project achieved its goal.

“This program was a research and development effort, not procurement, and a prototype was delivered, was tested and now is the property of the U.S. government,” he said. “KDH did develop and provide a sonar system, which was tested successfully by the government in December 2008.”

But court records suggest the prototype has had a troubled history.

In October 2004, Dave Herbener, president of KDH Defense Systems, made a presentation at a meeting convened by the Defense Department about his proposed “underwater intrusion detection system.”

According to slides of that presentation, Herbener said he already had a $1 million earmark for 2005 “supported by Congressman John P. Murtha ... funding is earmarked for KDH Systems.”

In the 2008 appropriations bill, Murtha secured $2.4 million for KDH for a “waterway threat detection sensor system,” and a 2006 press release from his office indicates that he also secured an earmark for KDH in the 2007 appropriations bill for a “waterfront perimeter detection system.” Murtha’s office offered no details about the total amount earmarked for this system.

In an e-mail to Roll Call on Monday, Herbener said KDH only received about $1.5 million for the sonar project, with the remaining funding going directly to other contractors.

KDH had no expertise in sonar systems. Herbener — a former employee of defense giant Lockheed Martin — founded a company in 2003 called KDH Defense Systems to sew bulletproof vests. In April 2004, KDH signed a $2 million contract with the Navy to sew the vests — though the company did not yet have a manufacturing facility.

But Herbener did have a strong background in radar. “My work with Lockheed included significant design, manufacture, and testing experience of sophisticated weapon systems with a primary focus on radar. It is my nearly 20 years of experience with Lockheed that helped me to develop our T3 Sonar,” he told Roll Call.

But when asked “Do you know how to develop a sonar system?” by a lawyer in a court case last fall, Herbener responded, “No, I do not.”

He also had a lobbying firm — KSA Consulting, which included Kit Murtha, the Congressman’s brother, and Carmen Scialabba, the Congressman’s former Appropriations Committee aide, as lobbyists on the KDH account. Herbener told Roll Call: “KSA Consulting has provided marketing and related services to KDH. KSA introduced KDH to Congressman Murtha.”

Herbener’s October 2004 slides for the swimmer detection project indicated that KDH was “teamed with” two other Pennsylvania companies with close connections to Murtha, Kuchera Defense Systems and Coherent Systems International — also a KSA client.

An attorney for Kuchera said “they have never teamed with KDH on any projects.” Herbener told a federal court that Coherent dropped out days after the initial contract was signed.

Kuchera and Coherent have received millions of dollars in earmarks from Murtha. Kuchera was raided by the FBI in January, reportedly as part of an investigation into the company’s government contracts. Coherent is party to a federal case in Florida alleging that other subcontractors skimmed from Coherent earmarks.

Herbener ended up hiring a British sonar company called Curtis Technology to develop the electronics for the underwater sonar, a relationship that dragged through a series of delays and disputes until Herbener finally filed suit in federal court in Pennsylvania in May 2008.

In testimony in that case last September, Herbener explained that the sonar project was not actually a project of KDH Defense Systems — it was a separate company that he established in 2005 called KDH Electronic Systems. That company “is a startup,” Herbener testified. “We were hoping this sonar system would be our first product.”

In September, Herbener told the court, “The program in general has gone waylaid.” Disputes with Curtis Technology led to repeated delays, and the original customer — the U.S. Navy — “has pretty much given up on us and they’ve moved on,” buying a similar system from a competitor company.

KDH shifted to an Army contract with the U.S. Special Operations Command when the procurement official overseeing the project moved from the Navy to the Army, Herbener said. But because of concerns about the project, “they’ve refused to reward the contract to us and we’re on the verge of running out of funding,” he testified.

Working with Curtis and other contractors, KDH managed to construct a prototype, but Herbener told the court: “The current prototype is a prototype. It’s not intended to be built in any kind of quantities.”

“Ultimately, to have a production system, we would most likely change out components, hardware, probably rearrange components, maybe redesign,” he said.

Herbener told Roll Call on Monday: “The situation with Curtis has definitely slowed down our progress. I am most confident that if the Curtis issues had not arisen, our sonar system would have been produced and in full operation by now.”

But he also said that the protype has been successfully tested four times and that KDH is continuing to make progress on the sonar system. Herbener said he has hired a new subcontractor and that “as funding permits we firmly believe we can field an end item production system in short order — possibly 3 to 6 months.”

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