Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who called for an immediate military withdrawal from Iraq in 2005 and who once accused U.S. Marines of killing Iraqi civilians "in cold blood" in Haditha, died Monday afternoon of complications from a gallbladder surgery performed last month.
Murtha, the 19-term Democrat who became embroiled in charges of corruption stemming from his leadership of the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee on defense funding, passed away peacefully with family members at his side at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, according to a statement released by his office.
Murtha, considered one of the most powerful members of Congress and a staunch ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was 77. He was the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress.
The consummate Beltway insider was well liked on both sides of the aisle.
“Today, our nation has lost a decorated veteran and the House of Representatives has lost one of its own," House Minority Leader John Boehner remarked in a statement. "I was saddened to hear of John Murtha’s passing, and my thoughts and prayers are with his friends and loved ones. I also want to express my condolences to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who valued Congressman Murtha’s advice and friendship. He will be missed.”
In a statement, Pelosi said "with the passing of Jack Murtha, America lost a great patriot."
President Obama released the following statement: "Michelle and I were deeply saddened today to hear about the passing of Congressman John Murtha. Jack was a devoted husband, a loving father and a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years. His passion for service was born during his decorated career in the United States Marine Corps, and he went on to earn the distinction of being the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress. Jack's tough-as-nails reputation carried over to Congress, where he became a respected voice on issues of national security. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife of nearly 55 years, Joyce, their three children, and the entire Murtha family."
Murtha had weathered tumultuous developments in recent years. In November 2006, he was defeated by Steny Hoyer for the House Majority Leader job, despite the strong backing he enjoyed from Pelosi.
According to the New York Times, Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, observed that: “In 2005, Congressman Murtha inspired a new generation by taking up the fight to end the Iraq War.”
Throughout his career, Murtha was an unrepentant purveyor of earmarks. He was accused of steering millions in earmarks to campaign donors. He also allegedly transferred $8.2 million in tsunami relief money to a military-equipment company that had ties with a relative's lobbying firm. Heritage Foundation records indicate Murtha sponsored or co-sponsored 25 earmarks valued at over $75 million in last year's $410 billion omnibus spending bill – but that was considered a modest year for him.
In recent years, Murtha reportedly 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 had close ties with Murtha. The offices of PMA Group, a political action committee, were raided by the FBI in November 2008. The PAC closed its doors shortly after the raid.
PMA Group and its clients – companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics – donated some $2.38 million to Murtha’s campaigns since 1998, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Late last year, the Office of Congressional Ethics recommended that any further investigation of Murtha and four other congressmen related to PMA should be dismissed.
Despite his strong support for military appropriations, Murtha in his later years fervently opposed the use of military force. He called for the Bush administration to immediately withdrawal troops from Iraq in 2005, which provoked sharp criticism. Former Sen. John Warner also lambasted Murtha for his allegations that U.S. Marines massacred 24 Iraqi civilians.
Murtha said on ABC's This Week program in May 2006 there was "no doubt" that the Marines were guilty, claiming a cover-up of their war crimes went "up the chain of command."
One of the Marines, Staff Sgt. Frank Wutterich, filed a defamation suit against Murtha.
Among Murtha's unsubstantiated remarks to ABC: “One woman, as I understand it, in talking to officials in the Marine Corps, was kneeling over a child pleading for mercy and they shot her in cold blood. That’s the thing that’s so disturbing. And even more disturbing is the fact that we know that the Iraqis knew about it because they made payments to the Iraqis for accidental deaths or salacious deaths whatever you want to call it. And in addition to that, they had … there has to have been a cover-up of this thing.”
The defamation lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that Murtha was acting in his official capacity when he made the remarks. The U.S. military has dropped its charges against the other Marines, but the charges against Wutterich have not yet been resolved.
While Murtha appeared likely to weather the Haditha incident, his affection for garnering suspect earmarks led one Washington watchdog group, CREW, to label him "one of the most corrupt members of Congress."
In April, the Boston Globe in April described him as "a proud practitioner of the dark art of congressional earmarks." The paper cited one source that stated his earmarks could amount to billions of dollars.
Murtha and his supporters insisted he had done nothing wrong.
"If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district," said Murtha, who was credited with revitalizing a region hit hard by cutbacks in steel production and coal mining. He was considered an expert in the Congress on national security and defense-related topics.
Murtha's death came less than a week after he became the longest-serving Congressman ever from Pennsylvania, a milestone he passed on Feb. 2. Considered more conservative than most of his Democratic colleagues on social issues, he was first elected in 1974.
In 1980, the FBI tried to bribe Murtha and other members of Congress by posing as Saudi sheiks. Murtha turned down the bribe that was offered, but appeared to leave open the possibility of doing something to help his district. He was named an unindicted co-conspirator, but served as a witness in the case. It led to the convictions of one U.S. senator and five congressmen.
Murtha's colleagues issued statements on Monday praising his service in Congress.
Jerry Lewis, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, stated: "I have never seen a more valiant defender of the men and women of our armed forces nor a more steadfast advocate for our country's unequaled national defense. Jack was a true patriot, and the Congress will be a much lesser place without him."
Murtha's Democratic colleague on the Appropriations Committee, Democrat David Obey, released a statement praising Murtha as "incredibly effective in his service in the House. He understood the misery of war. Every person who serves in the military has lost an advocate and a good friend today."
Murtha volunteered to serve in Vietnam after also serving in Korea.
In Vietnam, he earned the Vietnam Bronze Star and a Distinguished Service Medal, as well as two Purple Hearts.
His biography, From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security, was published in 2003.
He was born in West Virginia on June 17, 1932. Murtha leaves behind his wife Joyce, three children, and three grandchildren.
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