Last week’s release of FBI documents finally put in writing what nobody had ever said on the record: The FBI suspected that former Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and lobbyists close to him were running a scheme to funnel earmarks to sham companies and nonprofits to benefit the lawmaker’s friends and former staffers.
Bits and pieces of this story were kicked around for years before Murtha died in February 2010. The Los Angeles Times, Roll Call, the Washington Post and others had documented the odd appearance of earmarks for tiny defense contractors that just happened to open an office in western Pennsylvania and just happened to hire one of the lobbying firms close to Murtha and just happened to begin making campaign donations to Murtha and other Members of Congress close to him.
Reporters could do little but assemble the coincidences and couldn’t prove there was anything wrong with the bigger picture.
But it turns out the FBI was reading the stories and was very interested — interested enough that the Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation into Murtha and some of the lobbyists in his orbit, a fact that never leaked while Murtha was alive.
In part, the probe never leaked precisely because he was alive.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Justice Department files on Murtha and other Members of Congress. Its requests have been denied for the living Members on the grounds that they have a right to privacy, CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said last week. Murtha’s death eliminated the privacy exemption, and the Justice Department handed over a heavily redacted bunch of files to CREW on Oct. 14.
The files spell out for the first time a theory of the case that explains what Murtha’s cronies may have been up to.
In a memo dated June 19, 2009, FBI field agents requested the bureau “open a full public corruption investigation” regarding KSA Consulting, the lobbying firm that employed at various times the Congressman’s longtime defense aide Carmen Scialabba and the Congressman’s brother, Robert Murtha, widely known as Kit.
The FBI field agents concluded that “the relationships between Congressman John Murtha ... and employees and partners of KSA Consulting provide for a potential Honest Services Fraud ... if Congressman Murtha influenced the awarding of contracts to KSA-controlled entities or clients, in exchange for some personal benefit to the Congressman. KSA principals may also have committed Honest Services Fraud by lobbying Murtha to direct earmarks to KSA clients who ‘passed-thru’ the funds to subcontractor firms that did little actual work and were owned by KSA principles.”