Murtha Got Payback in ’08

Lobbyists, Contractors Funded Murtha’s Bid

Posted January 26, 2009 at 6:28pm

Facing a surprisingly tough re-election challenge in the closing days of his 2008 campaign, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) called on a well-established network of his earmarking beneficiaries to bail him out. And the defense industry contractors, several of whom had pulled down millions of dollars in Murtha earmarks in the 2009 defense spending bill, responded by flooding his coffers with what amounted to rescue cash.

The Defense appropriations cardinal’s more than $1 million haul in the last two weeks of the campaign included about $40,000 from employees of nine contractors that together received $60.6 million in targeted projects from Murtha last year, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records and House Appropriations Committee documents.

Four of those companies are clients of the PMA Group Inc., a lobbying firm founded by a former top Murtha aide that has emerged in recent years as a leading source of the lawmaker’s campaign funds. Altogether, PMA employees and their clients contributed more than $110,000 in the final two weeks of the campaign. And while many of those outfits have operations in Murtha’s western Pennsylvania district, nine out of every 10 of their checks dropped in from outside the state.

Murtha’s fundraising activity is receiving fresh scrutiny in the wake of news that federal agents on Thursday raided the offices of two Pennsylvania contractors with ties to the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

The FBI and other federal agencies raided the offices of Kuchera Defense Systems and its sister company, Kuchera Industries Inc., as well as the homes of two top executives, brothers Ron and Bill Kuchera. The companies claim long ties to Murtha, providing him more than $60,000 in campaign contributions since 2002 and winning millions of dollars in special projects from the veteran lawmaker, including $6.5 million for two projects last year, committee documents show.

It is not yet clear whether last week’s raid was aimed at Murtha — or whether it signals a wider look into his activities.

Murtha has long been a force in the House thanks to his perch directing Pentagon funding from the Appropriations Committee, leveraging the position to dole out favors to fellow lawmakers and direct hundreds of millions of dollars to his economically struggling Rust Belt district. His success in funneling federal dollars back home granted him a seemingly unshakable grip on the district for years — since he first won the seat in 1974 and prior to the past election, his re-election margin had dipped below 60 percent only twice.

But Murtha ran into trouble in mid-October when he said some of his constituents were “racists” and “rednecks.” He apologized for the remarks, but the National Republican Congressional Committee invested in attack ads highlighting them. Murtha’s poll numbers started to slump, and for the first time in a generation, he appeared vulnerable.

Murtha fought back with a fundraising blitz to bankroll a last-minute campaign offensive that ultimately paid off. He defeated Republican challenger William Russell 58 percent to 42 percent to secure a 19th term.

From his fellow Democrats in Congress, he raised more than $200,000. On October 29, he used MoveOn.org’s e-mail network to pen an appeal to liberal activists who he has championed as a leading critic of the Iraq War. The next day, a Murtha fundraiser wrote an e-mail to the lawmaker’s other national base: defense industry lobbyists and contractors. Carrying the subject line, “Cong. Murtha Campaign — Urgent Request for HELP,” the message described Murtha’s re-election fight as “brutal” and said he needed to raise $1 million to compete. “We are asking all to MAX their campaign contributions. … We need money immediately,” the e-mail said.

The defense industry answered the appeal by handing over tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of days.

“We appreciate the generosity of both our contributors and volunteers,” Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey said in a statement. “Their support enabled us to effectively communicate our message to the voters of western Pennsylvania.”

Among the most prolific donors were the PMA Group and more than a dozen of its clients. There is no indication that PMA was actively engaged in wrangling checks for the fundraising drive. And two contributors from companies that retain PMA said their decisions to give were their own.

Alan Kobran, a senior manager at Planning Systems Inc., said he contributed $1,000 because, before the election, he had been spending time on a project in the Johnstown, Pa., area and knew of Murtha’s political straits. “It wasn’t a secret that he was in trouble,” Kobran said. “Nobody asked me to give.”

Michael Wallace, director of software development for MobilVox, said he gave $1,000 after receiving an e-mail from the campaign.

“I think he does a lot of good work as the head of the Appropriations Committee, so I wanted to help him out,” Wallace said.

Both companies are based in Reston, Va., and both have operations in Murtha’s district.

Nevertheless, the amount of money that the firm and its clients generated eclipses that of other outfits considered to have strong ties to the Pennsylvania powerhouse or that have major stakes in the business of defense earmarks.

The firm and its employees wrote checks totaling more than $20,000, and its clients ponied up more than $90,000. Clients of other firms in Murtha’s orbit pitched in as well, with Robison International Inc. and its clients and those of Ervin Technical Associates Inc. each contributing more than $40,000. Those totals overlap, however, because all three firms represent Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Dynamics Corp., which together contributed about $30,000.

Murtha’s fundraising support from the PMA Group is hardly a new phenomenon.

Founded in 1989 by Paul Magliocchetti, formerly Murtha’s top aide on the defense subcommittee, the Arlington, Va.-based lobby shop has steadily climbed the K Street ranks, in part by solidifying its status as the go-to firm for access to the defense appropriations chief. It has helped cement that position in recent years by stepping up its campaign support for Murtha. In the 2002 cycle, for example, the firm and its clients raised about $370,000 for the lawmaker. By the 2006 cycle, that number had jumped to more than $600,000. And for the two-year period that just ended, PMA and its clients kicked in about $775,000 to Murtha’s accounts, according to an analysis of FEC records.

The firm’s support for the Congressman extends beyond simple fundraising. The PMA Group has committed $25,000 to become a “silver sponsor” of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, a pet project of Murtha’s wife, Joyce, according to a report in the New York Times. In September, it sponsored a champagne reception at the symphony’s opera festival.

The investment has paid off handsomely. In 2007, the first year new transparency standards made such an analysis possible, Murtha directed 17 earmarks worth a total of $65 million to PMA clients, a Roll Call study at the time found. Last year was leaner for earmarks, as lawmakers cut about $2 billion in projects from the defense spending bill. The PMA Group’s clients nevertheless secured nine Murtha earmarks worth a total of $28.1 million, an analysis of committee and lobbying records showed.

The PMA Group did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Argon ST, MTS Technologies Inc., DRS Technologies Inc. and Advanced Acoustic Concepts — PMA clients that together pulled down $18.1 million in Murtha earmarks last year and collectively contributed about $30,000 to his last-minute re-election fundraising drive.

Randy Belote, a spokesman for Northrup Grumman Corp., said employees of his company contributed because Murtha met the three criteria the defense giant applies to campaign donations: Murtha “has a long history of supporting national security priorities,” the company has a presence in his district and Murtha asked for the money.

“We respond to requests,” Belote said. “We don’t go out and solicit funds.”

Employees of the company contributed $9,100 in the closing days of the campaign, months after Murtha secured a $10 million earmark for the contractor to develop a “Military Interoperable Digital Hospital Testbed Project,” according to committee records.

Belote rejected the suggestion that a pay-to-play dynamic was at work.

“There’s no quid pro quo. We receive requests from all Members of Congress for funding. This is all legal activity, and we follow the federal election guidelines,” he said. “It’s all reportable, and it’s all out in the open.”

But Keith Ashdown, an investigator for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from companies that recently received millions of dollars in earmarked funds paints a troubling picture.

“The companies that have benefited from his long-term standing on his committee are going to make sure he stays there,” Ashdown said.

Of the ties between Murtha and PMA, Ashdown said the relationship is becoming “the new poster child for Congressional back-scratching.”

“It could be a long-term problem for Democrats if they don’t do anything about it,” he said. “It makes it look like the pay-to-play system is alive and kicking under Democratic rule, and they turn a blind eye toward changing it when it impacts one of their most powerful lawmakers.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is pushing a rules change to clamp down on lawmakers fundraising from earmark recipients, said recent revelations about the extent of the practice highlight the need to restrict it.

“Pay to play is rampant in the earmarking process, and it needs to stop,” he said.