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Appropriations Panel Routinely Destroyed Old Earmark Requests

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The House ethics committee has announced that it is investigating the links between earmarks and campaign contributions, but if investigators are looking at any activity prior to 2007, they could run into a problem: The documents underlying those earmarks may have been destroyed.

While it is a common business practice to maintain records on legislative activity, House Members are not obligated to maintain documents from their offices. The papers of a Member’s office are considered the lawmaker’s personal property and can be disposed of as he or she sees fit.

Committees are required to maintain some records, but according to current and former House staff, prior to 2007, the Appropriations Committee routinely disposed of Member letters requesting earmarks for spending bills.

In 2007, the House adopted new rules requiring that each earmark be identified in the bill with the name of the Member requesting it and that the request letters identifying the recipient be made public as well. But prior to establishment of those rules, earmark sponsors were not identified in the bill, and the panel is unlikely at this point to have any documentation for how individual earmarks got into appropriations bills before 2007, several sources said.

On June 11, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct announced that it had begun an investigation into “certain specified allegations” related to a House resolution urging the panel to disclose whether it was investigating earmarks, campaign contributions and the PMA Group lobbying firm.

The PMA Group was raided by the FBI last November; for the past two decades, the firm and its clients have produced millions of dollars worth of earmarks for key members of the Appropriations Committee and have received millions of dollars worth of earmarks.

But request letters for anything prior to 2007 may be difficult to find.

“We keep paper copies of the earmark request for about two years, and then we just don’t have the space to store it anymore,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Appropriations Committee. “For us it’s just a matter of logistics.”

Jim Specht, spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) — who headed the committee from 2005 until 2007 — said, “There is no formal policy [for retaining request letters], and there has been none since I’ve been here.”

House rules require that at the end of each Congress, the committee chairmen must turn over to the Clerk of the House “any noncurrent records of such committee,” which the Clerk then turns over to the National Archives. But the rules are vague on what records must be included, referring only to “any official, permanent record of the House (other than a record of an individual Member).” That definition appears to allow for an interpretation that the earmark request letters are records of the Member, not of the House.

The Clerk’s office told Roll Call that it is up to the committees to decide which documents to hand over for archiving.

Specht said he would be surprised if Members disposed of earmark request information because, presumably, the Members would want to follow up with the relevant agency if the earmark was not implemented properly or if the group seeking the earmark had a complaint after the bill was passed.

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