Ethics Panel Probed Lightly Into PMA

Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:48pm

The Feb. 26 ethics committee report concluding that no House Members colluded with the PMA Group lobbying firm to exchange earmarks for campaign contributions indicated that the committee had been investigating the matter since the spring of 2009.

But Roll Call has been unable to locate a single Member of Congress or company that was interviewed or asked for documents by the ethics committee, and a variety of sources said they believe that the committee did virtually no additional investigation beyond the draft reports on seven Members that were produced by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

In December, the OCE provided the ethics committee with reports on the relationships between PMA and seven Members, with each report running about 30 to 40 pages and including details of the investigations and samples of relevant documents. The OCE suggested that the ethics committee investigate two of the Members and dismiss the cases against the remaining five.

The ethics committee report announced that the panel — officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — had exonerated all seven of the Members and concluded that “the evidence presently before the committee does not support a determination that any House Member or employee violated any law, regulation, rule or other applicable standard of conduct” in connection with PMA.

The committee report was five pages long and included no documentation of any evidence collected or any interviews conducted by the committee, beyond a statement that the investigation “included extensive document reviews and interviews with numerous witnesses.” The ethics report says the committee reviewed documents adding up to nearly 250,000 pages. The OCE report states it collected about 200,000 document pages.

The ethics committee said it began investigating PMA in the spring of 2009 and noted that it received a directive from the House in July to report back on its work on PMA earmarks.

The lobbying firm was raided by federal agents late in 2008 and closed its doors last March amid reports that the Justice Department was investigating the firm’s campaign donations and earmarks that its clients received.

The ethics committee, which does not regularly discuss its work other than in its reports, did not comment for this article.

Referring to the committee’s overall workload, ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) said Thursday that he and Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) “have had multiple media inquiries, and we have agreed not to say anything separately.”

But Bonner said in response to a question about why the committee did not appear to have interviewed any Members for its PMA probe: “It’s a fair inquiry.”

In October 2007, Roll Call reported that the brother of Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) created a new political action committee that spring and within weeks raised $50,000 almost entirely from staff and clients of the PMA Group.

In July 2007, those same donors reaped millions of dollars in earmarks from Reyes and other Members of Congress closely affiliated with PMA. Reyes, who had just become chairman of the Intelligence Committee, passed an intelligence authorization bill including several earmarks for donors to the PAC.

Reyes was not questioned about his PMA-related fundraising by the OCE — which focused on members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense — and the ethics committee did not contact him either, his office confirmed last week.

The ethics committee apparently did not request documents or interviews from either Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) or ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) about earmarks.

Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) provided an earmark in the 2006 appropriations bill to a PMA client called Schaller Engineering. The head of that company, Richard Schaller, has been convicted of skimming funds from earmarks.

The OCE concluded that Young had no contact with PMA lobbyists and had credible separation between his fundraising and legislative activities, going so far as to avoid scheduling fundraisers during the markup of the appropriations.

But in accordance with its rules, the OCE did not review activity taking place prior to the 2008 election cycle, and therefore, it was not in a position to review the Schaller earmarks.

The ethics committee did not follow up with Young to request additional interviews or documents, his office said.

The Schaller case also circled around an earmark provided by the late Rep. John Murtha (Pa.), who served for many years as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

The ethics committee apparently did not interview Murtha, who died Feb. 8, or any of his staff.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who received more that $100,000 in campaign contributions from PMA lobbyists and their clients and sponsored earmarks for firms represented by PMA, said he was never contacted by the ethics committee. “Nobody has talked to me about it,” Capuano said last week. “For me, it was just a media story and nothing more.”

The ethics committee did not contact other Democratic Members who were major recipients of PMA donations and sponsored earmarks for the firm’s clients, including Reps. Bill Pascrell (N.J.), Mike Doyle (Pa.), Tim Ryan (Ohio), Chet Edwards (Texas) or Paul Kanjorski (Pa.), those offices said. The committee also apparently did not contact top Republican recipients of PMA contributions, including Lewis and Reps. Ander Crenshaw (Fla.) and Jack Kingston (Ga.).

The ethics committee also did not request documents or interview staff for any of the Members listed above, according to those offices and other sources familiar with the investigation.

The OCE report recommended the ethics committee open an investigation of Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and said Tiahrt had refused to sit for an interview and did not allow the OCE to interview his staff, though his office did provide written affidavits and thousands of pages of documents. The OCE recommended that the ethics panel seek information from Tiahrt and two top staffers.

Tiahrt spokesman Sam Sackett told Roll Call: “After interviewing two Tiahrt staff members, the Standards Committee concluded his defense appropriations vetting process was highly professional and absolutely and totally separate from any campaign-related activity. As a result, the committee concluded there was no need to interview the Congressman.”

Tiahrt’s response to the OCE’s investigation — asserting that he did nothing wrong, signed by the Congressman under penalty of perjury and authored by his attorney — is included in the ethics panel’s report.

The OCE also recommended that the ethics committee seek more information from the aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co., indicating that while Boeing provided information to the OCE, other sources provided e-mails to and from Boeing that were relevant to the investigation but that the company had not provided. The ethics committee apparently did not request additional documents from Boeing.

“We had no inquiries or requests at all from the ethics committee,” Boeing Communications Director Doug Kennett said Friday. “The only thing we had was the one document search request from the Office of Congressional Ethics.”

Several other PMA client companies that were interviewed by the OCE told Roll Call that they were not contacted by the ethics committee for any additional information.

“The ethics committee never followed up,” said Tom Kurtz, president of the Windber Research Institute in Windber, Pa. “I don’t think anybody heard from them.”

The OCE also recommended that the ethics committee mount a full investigation of Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), pointing to documents that indicated companies believed their campaign donations were buying access to the Congressman and assistance with earmarks.

The committee concluded that there was no evidence that Visclosky had done anything wrong, but it is not clear whether it interviewed Visclosky. His office would not return calls and e-mails requesting comment.

As with the Tiahrt inquiry, a response to the OCE’s investigation, signed by Visclosky under penalty of perjury and authored by his attorney, is included in the ethics panel’s report.