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Ethics and Appropriations Make Strange Bedfellows

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

Members of the House ethics committee, who are investigating a pattern of lawmakers steering federal funds to generous defense contractors, have just had their own pet military projects approved by the same committee whose activities they are probing.

The 10 committee members sponsored 29 earmarks -- $59 million in federal funding for projects they requested in their districts or states -- under a military spending bill that passed the House on Thursday. The bill's details were approved last week by the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, whose practice of steering earmarks to clients of a well-connected lobbying firm close to the chairman, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), is the subject of the ethics committee's investigation.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the ethics committee, would receive three earmarks worth $9.5 million under Murtha's bill. That includes $4 million to clean up contamination at a former military air base in Alameda, Calif.; $2 million for "printed and conformal" electronics research; and $3.5 million for Stanford University aeronautical research into the use of paraffin-based rocket fuel.

Last month, Lofgren's committee announced it was investigating the ties between members of Congress and PMA Group, a lobbying firm run by one of Murtha's close friends. It did not name the members, but Murtha and fellow defense appropriation members Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and James P. Moran (D-Va.) have longtime ties to PMA and have orchestrated hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to PMA clients in recent years. The PMA Group closed after an FBI raid late last year, and Visclosky's congressional records were subpoenaed in May by a grand jury investigating defense contracts.

Congressional ethics experts said the ethics committee earmarks create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, and some in the public would naturally question how thoroughly the committee might investigate members on the subcommittee that granted their funding wishes.

"At the same time the committee is investigating the ties between lobby shops and earmarks and appropriators, they are actually playing the game themselves," said Steve Ellis, of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's hard not to see some conflict of interest in that."

Lofgren said she cannot quit advocating for good projects in her district because she leads the ethics panel, and she stands behind the worthiness of her requests. "When one is appointed to the ethics committee, one is not relieved of the responsibility to represent one's district," she said in a telephone interview.

She noted that the electronics research was something the administration also sought and that the rocket fuel research could lead to significant scientific advancements. "If this works, it's going to revolutionize space travel," Lofgren said.

Ranking minority member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) would receive $5.3 million in requested funds for two research projects at two Alabama universities. Because of questions raised recently about the propriety of earmarks, he said, he decided not to request funding this year for projects that would benefit for-profit companies. He said he forwarded only requests for projects steering funding to universities, local governments and quasi-public entities.

Bonner said there will always be potential conflicts for the ethics committee, as its members sometimes investigate the actions of lawmakers who come from the same state, party or committee.

"We're striving in an imperfect system to do the work we've been elected to do; our job is to honor the institution and restore some semblance of confidence in it among the American people," he said. "Serving on the ethics committee should not disenfranchise the constituents of my district, or my state for that matter, to have worthy projects considered in an open and transparent process by the appropriations committee."

President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have encouraged House leaders to remove billions of dollars of unwanted military projects from the measure.

Jan Baran, a lawyer at Wiley Rein, said members rarely, if ever, volunteer for the ethics committee, and the conflicting goals are one reason. First, he said, lawmakers do not relish investigating their colleagues, and, second, they are in the business of building coalitions with colleagues to accomplish their agenda for their district and constituents.

"It's a little difficult to garner the support of a colleague if you are investigating him," Baran said. "These earmarks highlight the awkwardness that is inherent for a member who is serving on the ethics committee."

Murtha's spokesman declined to comment on the potential for an appearance of a conflict and said The Post's questions about earmarks were unwarranted.

"I'm amazed at how desperate The Washington Post is at continuing their search for 'silly' stories involving Congressman Murtha," said Matthew Mazonkey. "It's yellow journalism at its finest."

Baran said that Lofgren's committee has a thankless job and that the public should evaluate the thoroughness of its investigation when it is completed. But, he stressed, the committee is not the only group looking at the web of House earmarks to defense firms that hire well-connected lobbyists and donate campaign funds to appropriators.

"You've got the FBI looking and grand juries apparently empaneled here," Baran said. "If there is something really wrong, it will come out in the form of an indictment."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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