By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Tucked into the voluminous congressional plan for U.S. military spending next year is $160 million intended to help Mexico's police buy U.S.-made first-responder radios.
It is a major purchase that one radio manufacturer got rolling, 12 members of Congress formally requested and a powerful defense appropriations chairman championed, according to records and congressional staff members. But details of the plan to pump Pentagon money into Mexico's crime-fighting efforts are cloaked in vaguely worded language in the House defense bill. The program is one of many congressional requests in the measure, which also includes 1,080 projects worth $2.7 billion tacked on at lawmakers' request.
The language in the $636 billion bill, which the House Appropriations defense subcommittee approved last week, discloses neither the specific purpose of the radio project nor the dozen lawmakers who asked Chairman John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to include it.
Members of Congress are required under new rules to disclose all requests they make to direct federal money to pet projects, but the radio-buying program is not technically a congressionally directed "earmark." Instead, according to the panel, the item is classified as "program support," which means that the requesting lawmakers do not have to publicly claim it.
"It kind of makes a mockery of the disclosure requirements we have," said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. "They will disclose the little things, the $1 million projects, but when you have the big-ticket items, you don't have members willing to take responsibility for those."
The names of sponsoring lawmakers were included in a June 19 letter sent to appropriators that was signed by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and others. Seven are from Illinois, the home state of the communications firm Motorola, which initiated the request, according to Rush's staff. The five others are from border states.
On his congressional Web site, Rush disclosed seeking $5.5 million for two defense-related projects, both for Illinois universities, but said nothing about the radio project. Motorola is not mentioned by name in the bill. The company manufactures a class of radios whose specifications fit the technology described in the lawmakers' request.
Officials at Motorola, whose top lobbyist appeared at a hearing before Rush's subcommittee a few weeks ago, declined to comment.
Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), another advocate for the radio purchases, reports making three funding requests for defense projects worth just over $9 million. Bean, who has received $6,500 in donations from Motorola officials since 2004, also does not mention the project she and Motorola pushed.
Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) reported requesting $14.5 million for four defense projects that would benefit Illinois researchers and firms. She and her staff did not return calls seeking comment.
In their June letter, the lawmakers said that the Mexican police's need for secure communications is "urgent and critical" and added that the neighboring country's budget was "already committed" to other police modernization efforts. The letter stressed that "it is important that any system procured for this purpose" should be interoperable with U.S. law enforcement systems, have open standards and use encryption to prevent eavesdropping.
Matt Mazonkey, Murtha's spokesman, said the Defense Department has the discretion to decide which company would best provide the first-responder radios to Mexico.
Mazonkey said that the committee wanted to "address a serious problem and concern," and that defense funding has been used to fight drugs in Afghanistan and Colombia.
"We believe that by helping Mexican authorities fight the drug cartels, we are helping to protect American citizens impacted by both the increase in violence along our southern border and the spread of narcotics to our communities," Mazonkey said.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.