Firms Tied to Murtha Have Troubled Past
Friday, June 5, 2009
CROYLE TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Inside the LBK Ranch, a private game preserve on a scenic hilltop here, guests mingle at a stone lodge after hunting deer and wild boar. Signs posted at intervals along the fence warn: "No Trespassing: U.S. Govt. Testing Facility."
Defense firm owner Bill Kuchera and his wife, Lena, the owners of the 161-acre property, live in an upscale log home within the preserve and go to extensive efforts to keep out strangers. There are no visible signs of government testing, but behind the 10-foot fence and electronic gate lies the answer to a politically sensitive question now under federal scrutiny: whether Kuchera's companies padded their Pentagon billings and diverted taxpayer money to their own pet projects.
In January, federal agents raided the ranch, along with the homes of Bill Kuchera and his younger brother Ron and the offices of two Kuchera companies. Federal authorities are investigating tips from company insiders suggesting that taxpayers were billed improperly for Kuchera family expenses and ranch renovations, according to sources familiar with the probe. Tens of millions of dollars in Defense Department contracts have flowed to Kuchera's companies because of the local congressman, Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha, the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. The Navy recently suspended the company from future contracts while the investigation proceeds.
Murtha, who was celebrated at the LBK Ranch with a fundraiser held in his honor, last week sidestepped questions about $50 million in earmarked funds and contracts he has helped direct to Kuchera Defense Systems and Kuchera Industries Inc. since 2001. But newly obtained documents and interviews show that the current federal investigation is only the latest chapter in the troubled history of the Kuchera brothers' business ventures.
The Kucheras have a complicated family history that involves drug-running and a family feud that left the brothers in control of the companies. Over time they became affluent and respected defense contractors in their home town near Johnstown, Pa.
Before Bill Kuchera produced electronics and robotic equipment for the Pentagon, he helped run thousands of pounds of marijuana and some cocaine from Miami to sell in Racine, Wis., according to criminal records and accounts of others involved in the drug operation. Bill Kuchera pleaded guilty to a single and lesser felony distribution charge in 1982 after cooperating witnesses implicated other Kuchera family members in helping store drugs at the family home. Ron Kuchera and the boys' parents were never prosecuted.
Bill and Ron Kuchera's uncle, Michael Kuchera, the founder of the original Kuchera Industries Inc., told The Washington Post that his nephews tricked him into selling the business to a shell corporation they secretly controlled.
Dennis McGlynn, an attorney for the Kuchera brothers, said he thought Michael Kuchera knew he was selling the business to his nephews, whom McGlynn said he represented in the sale. He said the Kuchera companies are appealing the Navy's suspension and he has no evidence of improper billing. He declined to comment on other questions.
"In defense of Bill and Ron, these people have hired-top notch engineers, computer techs and line people," McGlynn said. "They produce excellent products. I am certain that all of the general contractors who use KDS will tell you that their work is unparalleled."
Murtha, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Known as "Billy" and "Ronnie" to friends, the Kucheras grew up in Racine but tried several times to make a living in their family's native Cambria County, Pa. In the mid-1970s, Bill Kuchera ran a bar near Johnstown, and his uncle Mike ran an electronics supply store.
After the 1977 Johnstown flood, both family enterprises were wiped out by the town's economic downturn. The uncle tried to rebuild slowly. Bill and Ron Kuchera moved back to Racine, where Bill sold fireworks imported from the South.