Murtha’s Money

Posted June 10, 2008 at 4:31pm

“The scandal isn’t what’s illegal,” political commentator Michael Kinsley famously observed. “It’s what’s legal.” By that standard, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and his use of Congressional earmarks amount to a scandal factory.

The latest instance, as Roll Call reported on Monday, is a system whereby Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, steers hundreds of thousands of dollars in public and private money to a charity in his district that has as its primary mission passing out $250 checks to high school students in the district — i.e., young voters, potential voters and the children of voters. About 1,200 checks will be passed out this year.

The charity, called the Challenge Program, no doubt serves a worthy purpose — rewarding scholastic performance, community service and school attendance. It’s good that local businesses support it, and if the Congressman merely cheered it on — fine.

However, several major donors to the charity also happen to be defense contractors that received earmarks sponsored by Murtha and are represented by a lobbying firm, the PMA Group, which has close ties to Murtha.

There’s nothing illegal about the arrangement and only a House ethics committee investigation could establish whether it’s a violation of House rules, which forbid Members from suggesting that a donor to a favored charity will receive favorable treatment in Congressional matters.

There’s another not-so-surprising connection between Murtha and entities benefiting from his earmarks. As Roll Call reported last year, every company that got federal funds in the 2007 defense appropriations bill through Murtha’s largess also gave him a campaign contribution.

Murtha dispensed $114.5 million in 40 earmarks and the recipients — through political action committees or employees — donated at least $100,750 to his re-election campaign.

Again, there’s no evidence of any illegal quid pro quos. But, as Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense put it: “Campaign contributions are the Congressional earmark cover charge. While a contribution doesn’t guarantee you an earmark, you won’t get one if you don’t cut a check, at least in Murtha’s case.”

Another suspicious pattern unearthed by Roll Call is that a contractor’s chances of winning a Murtha earmark seem to improve exponentially if the company hires the PMA Group or KSA Consulting, another Murtha-connected firm, as their lobbyist. Opening an office in Murtha’s district, even a lightly manned one that may do little actual work there, also appears to increase the chances of securing that earmark.

Again, there is no evidence of illegality or rule-breaking here. But, as a Republican ethics consultant put it: “It’s the smell test — you get an earmark and then you make a contribution to his favorite charity. Whether it’s a technical violation of the rules, we don’t have enough facts to know.”

We submit that there is enough smell emanating from Murtha’s earmarking patterns for the new Office of Congressional Ethics to make it one of its first objects of inquiry. The OCE can’t investigate past activity, but we’re pretty sure that Murtha’s behavior won’t change in the future.