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Justice Department Investigates Mountaintop Technologies Over Murtha Earmarks

"You have to think there is a considerable extra cost to taxpayers for a company that just goes out and acquires talent for each contract," said Steve Ellis, a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group critical of earmarks.

Coal Country Neighbors

Fyock became close with Murtha while the two worked together to bring industry to Johnstown, when Fyock was a lobbyist and economic development director for the local electric company in the 1980s.

Fyock opened Mountaintop in 1993 as a two-person firm designing and selling software for online course work. He put the corporate headquarters in the same Main Street office building where Murtha's congressional office is located, just one floor below. The congressman's brother, Kit Murtha, and three former Murtha aides have worked as registered lobbyists for Mountaintop, and the company has paid $725,000 for lobbyists since 1999. In the same period, Fyock and a handful of Mountaintop executives have donated $40,200 to Murtha campaigns, which represented less than 2 percent of the congressman's fundraising at the time.

Murtha has touted the company to the Defense Department and his constituents as a firm with expertise that could oversee projects including robotics, battlefield anesthesiology and emergency communications. It won government work to manage the John P. Murtha airport in 2007 and is now pressing for federal contracts to study autism therapies.

Fyock said his company doesn't pretend to be expert in all these areas, but hires and oversees the work of specialists.

"We were the ones who found the experts and took their knowledge and made it available," he said. "Somebody has to put together all the work that's necessary."

In 2002, when the company had grown to 25 employees, it won its first big federal contracts and subcontracts, on three projects worth $13 million. At a local defense industry conference he helped host in Johnstown, Murtha announced that he had added the contracts to the Defense Department budget.

Under one of the contracts, the company is helping conduct research on a broadband system with the goal of bringing rural residents cheaper Internet access. Another put the company in charge of setting up an emergency operations center so police and emergency workers could communicate on the same radio frequencies, to avoid the communication problems Murtha said he witnessed in Washington during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Cambria County emergency officials say they use the skills and equipment gained from the project: Their five-person emergency command center now has 40 computers available in case of a major crisis.

The most lucrative contracts, in 2002 and 2004, paid Mountaintop $11 million to manage an evaluation of potential military uses for the Bombardier CL-415, an amphibious plane that could dump water on fires. The company recommended that the military buy the plane, but that has not happened.

"Just because none of the planes were ever purchased doesn't diminish the quality of the work we did," Fyock said.

Fyock told Jack Schultz, a rural economic development blogger, in 2007 that he was proud of how much the company was weaning itself from earmarks: "While earmarks helped us to get these programs started, today over 50 percent of our business is built upon continuous contracts that we win on our own merit."

Over the past eight years, according to the White House budget office, the company has faced open competition in only 11 percent of its federal contracts, which make up most of its business.

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