By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Sen. Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican congressman appointed to replace Trent Lott in December, last year obtained a $6 million earmark for a defense contractor whose executives were among his top campaign contributors and were represented in the matter by Wicker's former congressional chief of staff, according to federal records.
Wicker's earmark for Manassas-based Aurora Flight Science fits a pattern that recently attracted bipartisan criticism and gave rise to the most far-reaching ethics overhaul legislation in a generation: The firm retained the services of the congressman's top aide after he passed through the revolving door to become a lobbyist, and its employees helped underwrite Wicker's reelection.
Over the past three years, as Aurora sought defense contracts, the Republican member of the Appropriations defense subcommittee received escalating contributions from the company's executives. Aurora was Wicker's top source of campaign funds in 2006, campaign finance records show. In 2005, the company flew the congressman on a private jet to the ribbon cutting of a manufacturing facility it opened in Wicker's Mississippi district.
And just days after Wicker's chief of staff, John Keast, left his employ in 2006, Aurora began listing the former staffer on public forms as one of its lobbyists in Washington. Wicker placed the earmark in a defense appropriations bill that became law in November 2007.
None of those contacts with the congressman violated any laws. But they drew criticism from the Project on Government Oversight and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), nonprofit groups that have tried to change how Congress handles earmarking.
"It's so commonplace that people have become desensitized to the outrage, but the fact is earmarks for the well-connected leave that much less money available for the real needs of the American public," said Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director. "Congressional leaders promised they were ushering in an era of cleaner government. I guess not."
Wicker did not dispute his role in the earmark or the company's contacts with him, but said in an interview that he sees no problem with directing money to Aurora. He said contributions from its employees played no role in his decision to request the earmark in March 2007. The money was meant to speed development of a new, unmanned aircraft that would be able to fly for days at high altitudes -- a valuable military tool, Wicker said. And the company is developing the aircraft while creating jobs in his home state.
"The long and short of it is, Aurora is putting out a good product in return for these federal expenditures," Wicker said yesterday. "It clearly passes any cost-benefit test." Patti Woodside, a spokeswoman for Aurora, said the earmark was going to develop "a vehicle with tons of potential. I don't think anyone would dispute that this is a worthwhile endeavor." The aircraft is in the research and development phase, Woodside said. The company is developing the aircraft for the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command.
She said Aurora located its facility in Mississippi because the company's chief executive had a close friend at the Mississippi State University, not because of Wicker's representation of the 1st Congressional District from 1994 until his appointment to the Senate. She also said that while the company's lobbying firm, Cornerstone Government Affairs, hired Keast after he left Wicker's employ, another lobbyist at the firm, Dan Fleming, took the lead in helping them obtain federal funding.
Messages left Monday and Tuesday for Keast and Fleming were not returned. A lobbying disclosure statement filed for the period from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2007, lists both as lobbyists for Aurora before the House on budget issues. Wicker served on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee before his appointment to the Senate. That appointment came shortly after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.)described earmarking as the key factor in scandals that helped drive Republicans from power in 2006.
John Pruett, a fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, said: "There are a thousand companies out there that make unmanned vehicles. Why did he choose Aurora? It points out that [it should not be] . . . left to the inclinations of a representative. There should be some standard."
John Cummings, a spokesman for the Army command, said he did not know why Wicker submitted the earmark request. "It's a congressional add," he said. "It was not requested. It wasn't in the president's budget. Anything that comes in above that means it has not been requested by us."
Records show that Aurora chief executive John S. Langford made his first contribution to Wicker in March 2005. In April, Aurora flew Wicker, Keast and another staffer on a private jet to Starkville, Miss., to attend the opening of the company's new facility there. Under old congressional ethics rules, the private flight was valued at the cost of a commercial flight, or $3,083.
Wicker said the facility is in an area referred to as "the golden triangle," on the border between two congressional districts, where several military contractors have factories. The Aurora plant has created 45 jobs and promises to yield as many as 200, Wicker said.
"It was not a requested earmark from DOD," said Kyle Steward, Wicker's spokesman. "But I will say we had discussions with DOD. They told us no one else is as close to developing this technology as Aurora, and DOD folks are very interested in it, and they see this technology as a need in the future."
On Feb. 5, 2006, after working jointly for Wicker and the Appropriations Committee, Keast left to join Cornerstone. He registered to represent Aurora on Feb. 14, 2006. Cornerstone reported earning $40,000 in lobbying fees from Aurora that year. The same year, Aurora employees donated more than $13,000 to Wicker -- his top campaign contributor that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Wicker submitted his earmark request on March 22, 2007, less than two months after the one-year cooling off period in which Keast was barred from lobbying Wicker on Aurora's behalf. The company paid Keast's lobbying firm $60,000 in the first half of 2007.
Wicker said yesterday he had been "working with Aurora" long before Keast left his staff, and that he was certain that Keast "complied with all the waiting periods." Wicker said the company is one of several that have donated money to him and benefited from defense appropriations when he was on the subcommittee.
None of that should trouble people, he said. "Basically, I was just trying to create jobs for Mississippians and provide a strong national defense at the same time," Wicker said. "I'm a good vote for a strong national defense. When we can combine that with creating good jobs in Mississippi, in my mind, it's a two-fer."
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.