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Tiahrt Decision Highlights Tensions Over Ethics Process

The House ethics committee report issued Friday on the PMA Group lobbying firm’s relationship to Members of Congress included this odd nugget: Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) was probed by Congressional investigators for nine months despite the fact that there was never a specific allegation that he had done anything wrong.

Tiahrt was one of seven members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense investigated by the House’s independent Office of Congressional Ethics in an effort to determine whether Members had provided earmarks to the clients of the PMA Group in exchange for campaign contributions from the lobbyists and employees of the client firms.

The OCE recommended that the House ethics committee — formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — dismiss the cases of five of the Members, but recommended further investigation of two: Tiahrt, who has virtually no connection to PMA, and Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), whose office has been subpoenaed by the Justice Department in connection with the same issue and who had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from PMA staff and clients within days of making earmark requests on their behalf.

OCE’s report, which Standards released Friday as part of its dismissal of the investigation, notes that in fiscal 2009, Tiahrt “authored earmarks for the clients of the PMA Group” and “during campaign cycles 2008 and 2010, [Tiahrt] received contributions to his campaign committee and leadership PAC from PMA’s Political Action Committee, PMA employees, the PACS of PMA clients for whom he authored an earmark, and the employees of those clients.”

But the report does not allege that Tiahrt had a deal to trade earmarks for campaign contributions. Rather, it says, “If Representative Tiahrt solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in exchange for or because of an official act,” then he “might have” violated House rules.

As in the reports OCE compiled on other Members, investigators found indications that companies appealing for earmarks and their lobbyists believed that making campaign donations helped ensure the Member would support the earmark.

Other Members, including the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who chaired the subcommittee until his death in February, met with the OCE investigators and “credibly articulated a process that separates [the Member’s] legislative activities from campaign fundraising activities” — a phrase repeated for each of the five Members who met with OCE.

Tiahrt and Visclosky both chose not to sit for interviews with OCE but provided the investigators with documents and affidavits swearing that there was no connection between contributions and earmarks.

OCE rejected those submissions and referred their files to Standards for further investigation. The OCE report points out that internal memos of a donor company indicate that the donor felt the campaign contribution and the earmark were linked, and “because the OCE was unable to interview Representative Tiahrt or his staff, the Board is unable to conclude whether the Member was aware or not that the donor linked the contribution to an official act.”

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