Murtha's Friends

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, May 28, 2007

Democrats controlling the House of Representatives demonstrated this month the hollowness of their claim that they have ended the corruption of 12 Republican years. Rep. John Murtha quietly slipped into the intelligence authorization bill two earmarks costing taxpayers $5.5 million. The beneficiary was a contractor whose headquarters is in Murtha's home town of Johnstown, Pa., and whose executives have been generous political contributors to the powerful 17-term congressman.

This scandalous conduct would be unknown except for reforms by the new Democratic majority. But the remodeled system is not sufficiently transparent to expose in a timely manner the machinations of Murtha and fellow earmarkers to their colleagues, much less to the public. It took Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, the leading House earmark-buster, to discover the truth.

Jack Murtha, the maestro of imposing personal preferences on the appropriations process, looks increasingly like an embarrassment to Congress and the Democratic Party. But there is no Democratic will to curb Murtha, one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's closest associates. Nor are Republicans eager for a crackdown endangering their own earmarkers.

On May 10, as the intelligence bill moved toward passage, Flake took the floor of the House to relate how Capitol Hill works. Told that there were no earmarks attached to the bill, a skeptical Flake sought the measure's classified annex but was sent on a wild-goose chase for earmarks -- first to the clerk of the House and then to the parliamentarian. When he finally found 26 earmarks, it was five hours after the deadline to submit amendments to the bill. Flake requested a secret session of the House on intelligence earmarks but got no support from either party.

Five days later, in a letter to House Republican leader John Boehner, Flake revealed (without describing them) Murtha's two earmarks for the Johnstown-based Concurrent Technologies. One provides $2.5 million for the Mobile Missile Monitoring and Detection program. The other supplies $3 million for the Joint Intelligence Training & Education with Advanced Distributed Learning Technological Phase II.

Murtha's earmark requests attest (as required by the new reforms) that "neither I nor my spouse had any financial interest" in either project. What he did not attest was that officers and employees of Concurrent Technologies contributed $56,475 to Murtha from the 2000 election cycle to the present, according to Federal Election Commission reports. That includes $4,500 from the company's chief executive and president, Daniel DeVos, and $5,000 from its vice president, Emil Sarady.

In his May 15 letter to Boehner, Flake made "another appeal" for House Republicans "to take a more proactive position in opposition to earmarks." The minority leader did not respond. Instead, on May 21, Boehner wrote to Pelosi that Murtha's $23 million earmark for a National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown was "a questionable project" secured by "highly suspect methods." Indeed, the project was not placed on the earmark list, as required by the new rules. An effort by Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan to eliminate this project led to Murtha's notorious threats, in violation of House rules, to eliminate Rogers's own earmarks "now and forever."

In fact, Rogers, a 43-year-old former FBI agent, has 10 earmarks, costing more $45 million, to protect. Flake is a rare Republican who understands that pounding on Democrats will not cure the GOP's earmark addiction. "I am concerned," Flake wrote to Boehner, "that the only action taken regarding earmarks by Republicans thus far this year is to ask for clarification of the earmark rules, in order to ensure that we can take full advantage of earmark opportunities." Boehner, who personally does not use earmarks, told me, "I can't agree with that." But he did not respond to Flake.

Nor do Democrats show interest in curbing earmarks. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, Pelosi's handpicked intelligence committee chairman, blamed nondisclosure of earmarks on a mistake by the Government Printing Office. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) first skirted the new rules by claiming that no earmarks were contained in the supplemental appropriations. Last week, he decreed that henceforth, earmarks in his bills would not be revealed until a measure passes both the House and Senate. The test for Democrats is what they will do about Murtha now that it is known that he rewards contributors with federal funds.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company