Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly described Paul Magliocchetti, who formed the lobbying firm PMA, as a former aide to Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). Magliocchetti was a staff member for a House Appropriations subcommittee.

Research Center's Role Faces Scrutiny

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) helped establish Pennsylvania State University's Electro-Optics Center.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) helped establish Pennsylvania State University's Electro-Optics Center. (By Brendan Hoffman -- Bloomberg News)
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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Pennsylvania defense research center regularly consulted with two "handlers" close to Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) as it collected nearly $250 million in federal funding through the lawmaker, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post and sources familiar with the funding requests. The center then channeled a significant portion of the funding to companies that were among Murtha's campaign supporters.

The two advisers included a lobbyist for PMA Group, a firm with close ties to Murtha that is the subject of a federal investigation into whether it made illegal contributions by reimbursing donors to the Pennsylvania lawmaker and other members of Congress. The Electro-Optics Center also relied on advice from a longtime Murtha friend who now works on the congressman's appropriations staff.

Federal agents are also exploring how the center obtained its funds after they received dozens of internal documents last year. It is unclear whether the records have become a central focus of the Justice Department's probe, but they open a window into a largely hidden process in which powerful lawmakers can direct funds to pet projects.

The Electro-Optics Center, created by Murtha a decade ago under the auspices of Pennsylvania State University, was envisioned as a way to spur a new high-tech industry and create jobs in economically depressed western Pennsylvania. Last year, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh received a packet of budget materials, memos and e-mails from inside the center documenting how closely its managers conferred with PMA about the best ways to get its projects funded in the federal budget, according to two sources familiar with the information.

The center was supposed to help contractors in researching laser and optics technology to improve products for the military, and center officials said contractors were supposed to benefit from some of the federal funds.

Unlike in traditional earmarks -- funding for specific projects publicly requested by members of Congress -- most of the money for the center came through a budget maneuver known as a "plus-up." The process for this kind of earmark allows lawmakers to add money to an existing program in the budget without public disclosure. The center sought $120 million in this type of money for itself and other companies in 2006 alone, according to the records.

Several of the center's partners hired PMA for lobbying. In the 2008 budget, PMA clients received $299 million in defense earmarks through Murtha and other lawmakers. PMA and its clients gave $775,000 in contributions to Murtha in the last election cycle.

A PMA lobbyist and a close associate of Murtha's helped make many key decisions about what research and which contractors would get the federal money flowing to the center, according to the documents.

Typically, the center's director, Karl Harris, worked with the lobbyist to prepare funding wish lists, which were described in some of the records as "requests for Mr. Murtha to carry." The requests were sent to the congressman's staff, according to the records. The lists detailed how much, and where in the budget, money should be added for projects desired by the center and the contractors.

According to center records and two sources, Harris consulted regularly on the center's overall funding requests with the two men he jokingly referred to in the office as his "handlers": the PMA lobbyist, Daniel Cunningham, and Murtha friend Charlie T. Horner. Cunningham, who golfed with Murtha and occasionally drove him home to Pennsylvania from Washington, was part of the lobbying firm formed by former Murtha aide Paul Magliocchetti. Horner, a former veteran and Defense Department official, was a paid consultant for Electro-Optics, as well as for Lockheed Martin.

Harris did not return calls, but his staff referred questions to Penn State. Edward Liszka, the university's head of defense-related research, said the university was very involved in reviewing the center's research work and doubts that a PMA lobbyist played any significant role. The university receives a percentage of the center's research funds for administration, and Liska said that is a routine arrangement for academic institutions.

Patrick Dorton, a PMA spokesman, said Cunningham occasionally consulted with Harris to provide correct information about PMA clients.

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