Allegations that embattled Rep. John P. Murtha used a university research center as a “front” to distribute federal funds to other companies means the controversy over congressional earmarks will smolder on long after President Obama’s signature dries on the $410 billion omnibus spending bill.
That Murtha is an all-star when it comes to winning earmarks is unquestioned. Heritage Foundation records indicate Murtha sponsored or co-sponsored 25 earmarks valued at over $75 million in the recently approved omnibus spending bill – a modest year for him.
Politico.com reported Wednesday that in recent years Murtha obtained millions in earmarks for Penn State University’s Electro-Optical Center (EOC), which then rerouted the money to clients of PMA Group, a military-oriented lobbying firm that has close ties with Murtha.
PMA’s offices were raided by the FBI in November. The New York Times reported that investigators were looking for evidence that PMA made illegitimate campaign contributions to the Pennsylvania Democrat.
PMA and its clients – companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics – have donated some $2.38 million to Murtha’s campaigns since 1998, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Another watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, says Murtha sponsored or co-sponsored over $100 million of defense-related earmarks in 2008 alone. He is ideally positioned to do so as chairman of the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriation Committee.
“We have not been contacted by any federal agency,” Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey tells Newsmax, “and no one is suggesting that Congressman Murtha has anything to do with this investigation.”
EOC was created in 1999 as a joint project with the Office of Naval Research to promote “the development of electro-optic materials, components, and systems needed to advance the state-of-the-art in electro-optic science and technology for our defense forces,” according to its Web site.
Politico’s sources allege Murtha used EOC as a “front” for distributing grants to the clients of influential D.C. lobbyists. Politico says at least 10 PMA clients received tens of millions of dollars from EOC.
Ties between PMA and EOC were so close that Karl Harris, EOC’s director, reportedly had a designated workspace in the PMA’s offices, and EOC earmark requests were closely coordinated with PMA according to Politico.
Harris did not respond to a Newsmax request for comment.
That PMA has been an earmark-generating machine is clear. Last year, over 100 congressmen helped PMA get one or more earmarks, according to a CQPolitics.com report. This year, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tried to get 39 earmarks that PMA won for its clients stripped from the spending bill. His colleagues voted him down.
Politico’s sources allege Murtha also used EOC to distribute millions in earmark money to Pennsylvania-based Kuchera Industries, a defense contractor. The Washington Post has reported Murtha helped direct over $50 million to Kuchera between 2001 and 2008.
In January, federal authorities raided Kuchera’s offices to search for evidence of wrongdoing. They also reportedly raided the homes of Kuchera executives. According to Politico, FEC records show Kuchera and its employees donated more than $65,000 to Murtha’s political activities.
Murtha maintains his earmarks have propped up an economically challenged region of Pennsylvania. Despite federal raids of two firms he has worked closely with, the 76-year-old congressman continues to staunchly defend his record.
“The Penn State Electro-Optics Center has created an alliance of over 350 companies and universities that the government can quickly tap to rapidly respond to emerging needs within electro-optics,” says spokesman Mazonkey. “This partnership has saved the Defense Department over $500 million in just the past few years, and we are proud of the work they are doing to support our warfighters.”
Mazonkey says Politico “printed a story based on unnamed sources and sensationalized claims.”
President Obama called Wednesday for an end to awarding funds to private companies without competitive bidding. But that didn’t keep him from signing a bill that has about 9,000 earmarks estimated to cost at least $8 billion.
On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reacted with a statement that “The president's rhetoric is impressive, but his statement affirms we will continue to do business as usual in Washington regarding earmarks in appropriations legislation. The president could have resolved this issue in one statement -- no more unauthorized pork-barrel projects -- and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them. This is an opportunity missed.”
Sen. Coburn recently expressed shock that even FBI raids haven’t slowed down the Beltway earmark gravy train.
“I am stunned,” he said last week on the Senate floor. “Stunned that we in Congress could even consider spending the hard-earned money of American taxpayers on projects secured by lobbyists who now find themselves under federal investigation for corruption. For a body who has repeatedly pledged to return ethics to Washington, allowing these provisions to remain would be the height of hypocrisy.”
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