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Eye-Opening Earmarks
A brewing ethics controversy in the House

Sunday, June 14, 2009

CLAIMS THAT Washington lawmakers exchange earmarks for campaign contributions are nothing new. But the swirl of allegations surrounding the PMA Group, a defense lobbying firm that doled out millions of dollars to lawmakers before closing its doors after an alleged raid by federal agents last November, and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) in particular, is unusually far-reaching. The cozy relationship between certain members of Congress and PMA is worrying, and we're glad that the House ethics committee is taking a closer look.

The PMA Group, a lobbying firm started by former Murtha aide Paul Magliochetti, handed out more than $40 million to members of Congress from 1998 to 2009, according to the New York Times. The Times reported that members of Congress set aside $300 million in earmarks for PMA's clients last year; Mr. Murtha alone earmarked $38.1 million.

Mr. Murtha -- who explained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March, "If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district" -- has been the focus of a series of ethics controversies. In just the past few months, The Post's Carol D. Leonnig has reported that federal agents separately raided the offices of PMA and defense contractor Kuchera Industries, both of which have ties to Mr. Murtha; that a research center that received $250 million in funding from Mr. Murtha has distributed much of that money to companies that contributed to the congressman's campaign; that Mr. Murtha secured at least $150 million of earmarks for a state-of-the-art, eponymous airport in his district that has little commercial business; and that Mr. Murtha's nephew, who mentioned his uncle's name in business dealings, benefited from lucrative, no-bid defense contracts that his uncle could influence.

Mr. Murtha's office counters that no one from the Justice Department has contacted the congressman about any of the investigations. An aide to Mr. Murtha emphasized that only the media are alleging that Mr. Murtha has done anything improper.

Reps. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.), who, along with Mr. Murtha, are senior members of the House Appropriations Committee, also have been linked to the PMA controversy. Mr. Visclosky, who has acknowledged that federal agents subpoenaed documents from his office relating to the PMA investigation, has temporarily stepped down as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development.

After pressure from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Az.), the House approved a resolution on June 3 that asked its ethics committee to disclose whether it is investigating the "pay to play" allegations involving PMA and members of Congress. The committee acknowledged Thursday that it was.

Republicans, after losing control of the House in 2006 due, in part, to a string of ethics scandals, see the PMA controversy as a way to reclaim the moral high ground and to damage the Democratic brand for the 2010 midterm elections; Democrats want to minimize the political fallout. With an ethics investigation underway, and with serious allegations to address, both parties should resist the temptation to turn the PMA controversy into a political football.

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