Murtha Donors Breathe Life Into Critz Coffers

Posted May 21, 2010 at 5:34pm

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) may have died in February, but his political fundraising machine is alive and well.

Rep. Mark Critz (D) was sworn in Thursday to replace Murtha, whom he succeeded after winning a special election Tuesday. A longtime Murtha district staffer, Critz handily defeated his Republican opponent, Tim Burns, in the mostly rural southwestern Pennsylvania district, which the GOP carried in the 2008 presidential election.

Although the race was dominated by parochial issues, its financing reached beyond the district. Critz relied heavily on Murtha’s vast fundraising network of lobbyists and defense contractors in and around Washington, D.C., and Johnstown, Pa. — Murtha’s hometown, which became a defense-sector dynamo during the appropriations cardinal’s 35 years in the House.

According to interviews and an analysis of current Federal Election Commission records, at least one-quarter of the roughly $440,000 in individual contributions to Critz came from employees of firms with long-standing Murtha relationships. Susan O’Neill, Murtha’s longtime political fundraiser, provided her services for free to Critz’s campaign.

In an interview, she said that she and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee worked Murtha’s old donor list in fundraising for his successor. On disclosure forms, Critz’s official fundraiser is listed as the Kentucky-based LA Harris and Associates.

“I tried to help Mark as a friend, not as a paid consultant, although he very much wanted me to do that,” O’Neill said. “I do mostly nonprofit fundraising and so it was just terrible timing for me to help him full time.”

She added: “I think between the DCCC and my efforts, we certainly contacted all of the people who had relationships with Mr. Murtha and who supported him. Many of them knew Mark, from working with Mr. Murtha on various issues.”

FEC records indicate that Critz received $11,150 in contributions from employees of Concurrent Technologies Corp., a Johnstown nonprofit organization that previous Roll Call reporting shows was the beneficiary of millions of dollars in Murtha earmarks.

Lobbyists at Flagship Government Relations were also generous to Critz’s campaign. One of a handful of firms that emerged from the breakup of Paul Magliocchetti’s appropriations empire, Flagship was listed as the employer for $6,900 worth of campaign contributions made to Critz’s campaign. Magliocchetti was a staffer on the House Appropriations Committee before forming the PMA Group. Following a Justice Department raid months earlier, Magliocchetti’s shop dissolved in February 2009. The firm’s abrupt closure begot four new shops: Flagship Government Relations, Capitoline Consulting, Federal Business Group and Capitol Consulting Group.

Two defense lobbyists interviewed for this article said O’Neill contacted them directly for donations to Critz’s campaign. A longtime Murtha associate downtown said Critz “would have been crazy if he didn’t try” to tap his former boss’s friends for help.

“I don’t know what the alternative is,” the source said. “You have to go with the people that you know, and I would imagine that the people who contributed to him were the people who he actually knew.”

In an interview, Critz’s campaign manager defended the Member’s fundraising strategy. “Mark’s proud of all the support he’s received … and part of that is talking with people he has built relationships over the years,” he said.

While Murtha’s ghost perhaps put Critz over the edge last week, the new Member could have more fundraising options between now and November.

O’Neill said that most established downtown political action committees did not contribute to Critz’s special election campaign because of bans on giving to candidates not involved in general elections. And while many corporate PACs passed on giving to Critz this go-round, his campaign fared slightly better with labor unions. The American Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Government Employees gave his campaign a combined $6,000, according to CQ MoneyLine.

“It was very hard to get involved in PACs. Some of them we were more successful than others in getting involved in,” O’Neill said. “Most of them have internal rules that prohibit it and it really protects them from getting involved in races they don’t want to get into.”

Murtha’s longtime fundraiser said she plans to volunteer again for Critz’s campaign this fall, when he faces a rematch with Burns that will likely come with a much heftier price tag. In the near term, O’Neill is uncertain whether an influx of K Street money will allow Critz to wean himself off Murtha’s old friends.