By Carol D. Leonnig and Alice Crites
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
The headquarters of Murtech, in a low-slung, bland building in a Glen Burnie business park, has its blinds drawn tight and few signs of life. On several days of visits, a handful of cars sit in the parking lot, and no trucks arrive at the 10 loading bays at the back of the building.
Yet last year, Murtech received $4 million in Pentagon work, all of it without competition, for a variety of warehousing and engineering services. With its long corridor of sparsely occupied offices and an unmanned reception area, Murtech's most striking feature is its owner -- Robert C. Murtha Jr., 49. He is the nephew of Rep. John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has significant sway over the Defense Department's spending as chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Robert Murtha said he is not at liberty to discuss in detail what his company does, but for four years it has subsisted on defense contracts, according to records and interviews. He said Murtech's 17 employees "provide necessary logistical support" to Pentagon testing programs that focus on detecting chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, "and that's about as far as I feel comfortable going." Giving more details could provide important clues to terrorist plotters, he said.
Murtha said he does not advertise being the nephew of John Murtha and considers it "unfortunate" that some will unfairly assume Murtech received its federal contracts because of his uncle's influence at the Pentagon.
"If we're not doing our job well, we wouldn't be doing our job," he said. "I'm successful at the work I do because of the skill sets I have. . . . You don't know how good someone is unless you work with them."
A spokesman at Murtha's office did not return calls seeking comment. The lawmaker, a former Marine, has said in the past that he is proud of his family's service to the military and the government.
Over the years, John Murtha has proudly claimed credit for using his Appropriations Committee seat to steer hundreds of millions in Pentagon work to companies in his district, many of them fledgling enterprises run by campaign contributors. His influence also may be seen in the military improvements at the Johnstown airport that bears his name. The little-used commuter airport doubles as a wartime preparedness facility for the Pentagon after $30 million in improvements.
Murtha's power has had beneficial effects within his family. His brother, Robert C. "Kit" Murtha, built a longtime lobbying practice around clients seeking defense funds through the Appropriations Committee and became one of the top members of KSA, a lobbying firm whose contractor clients often received multimillion-dollar earmarks directed through the committee chairman.
Robert C. Murtha Jr. of Murtech is Kit Murtha's son. He also is a former Marine who once served as a presidential security officer and aide to the president for White House functions. He worked for eight years for ACS, a defense and information technology contractor. When Lockheed purchased ACS in 2004, he started several companies, including Murtech, which he registered as a defense contracting firm.
Murtech received its contracts primarily from the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala., which has been generous to companies in John Murtha's district and enjoys a close relationship with the congressman through a mutual interest in breast cancer research. The Army command has won at least $200 million a year in federal funding for the cancer research, of which Rep. Murtha is a stalwart supporter. In a program called Missiles to Mammograms the command has collaborated with a contractor in Murtha's district, Windber Medical Center, in a multimillion-dollar project to explore using missile-tracking technology to detect breast cancer.
The command awarded its first storage contract to Murtech without competitive bidding, paying $1.4 million a year. Robert Murtha Jr. says the no-bid arrangement was "the government's choice" and occurred because the government "got itself in a bind." A contract with SA Scientific of San Antonio was about to lapse, and the command needed Murtech, then serving as a subcontractor to the Texas company, to store materials for the military's Critical Reagents Program. The program produces lab materials that can be used in handheld devices and sensors to detect the presence of biological toxins.
"We were uniquely qualified because we had already been doing that work," Murtha said.
In justifying the award, the command said in a spring 2007 notice that "Murtech, Inc. possesses a unique combination of certain essential capabilities" to perform the warehousing.
Leo Fratis, the Army contracting officer who handled the matter, said there was "nothing improper" about the contract. He said it was awarded on a no-bid basis only because the Army command "had a lot of things going on at the time."
Pentagon spokesman Julius Evans said the congressman never contacted the Army command about his nephew's company and has no say in its procurement decisions.
"Congressman Murtha has had no influence over any contract award by our organization," Evans said.
The Pentagon has paid $2 million to Murtech to provide "logistics and engineering" for tests of joint dismountable reconnaissance systems, emergency tools and kits that troops can use to evaluate the environment when a release of biological or chemical agents is suspected. Robert Murtha Jr. explained that the work involves Murtech employees moving equipment to Army test locations.
Murtech also was awarded a large piece of military business in September, as part of a contract for detection equipment awarded to ICX Technologies, a client of the lobbying firm PMA Group. PMA founder Paul Magliocchetti is a close friend of John Murtha's, and his firm's clients were highly successful in securing hundreds of millions of dollars in defense earmarks from Murtha. PMA is under federal investigation for its campaign donations to Murtha and other lawmakers.
Several members of the congressman's family have served in the military and worked in the government contracting arena. There's no evidence that Murtech has received direct congressional earmarks. A congressional rule imposed in 2007 requires that lawmakers certify that the earmarks they add to the federal budget would not benefit them or their family members.
The nephew disputes the notion that he has secured Pentagon work because of his family ties. In fact, he said, having a powerful relative can sometimes be a distraction.
"I've been critiqued all my life, having the last name of Murtha," he said. "Whenever I walk into a room, I don't know if you like him or if you don't like him."
But Steve Ellis, a spokesman for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said contracts to Murtech raise questions about whether taxpayers are getting the best value. "Historically we're always concerned when there is a sole-source or single-bidder contract," he said. "By definition, the taxpayer isn't necessarily getting the best deal possible. And certainly when you see the company has close ties to one of the most powerful appropriators in Congress, our antenna really perks up."
During an unannounced visit to Murtech headquarters last week, a reporter asking to talk to the owner was waved away by an employee.
"He's not here. Come back another day," said the woman who opened Murtech's security door. "Unfortunately, everybody's stepped out."
But a few minutes later, Murtha emerged and answered questions about the company.
In an interview, Murtha expressed concern that publicity could be harmful to his business.
Tom Mann, a Murtech vice president, also defended the company's operations, noting that Murtech had won the confidence of the Army by doing a good job.
Mann said the $4 million in contracts has not been excessive for the quality of work performed and the demands on the business.
"With a warehouse and distribution center, there's a lot of overhead," he said. "There's a huge recurring utility bill."
"Busy, busy. We're always busy here," said one employee walking outside the building.