Despite Institute's Woes, Rep. Murtha Still Seeks Earmarks

Rep. John P. Murtha has raised questions among watchdog groups about the use of taxpayer money to fund projects that benefit his loyalists.
Rep. John P. Murtha has raised questions among watchdog groups about the use of taxpayer money to fund projects that benefit his loyalists. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

INDIANA, Pa. -- The buzzer is broken at the John P. Murtha Institute for Homeland Security, and a note invites visitors, "Please knock." On a summer afternoon, a lone intern answers the door of the mostly empty basement offices that through the years have overseen $50 million in federal money awarded to projects designed to make the nation safer.

Named for the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who has shepherded most of its funding, the Murtha Institute was supposed to embark on projects to protect the country from terrorists and clean up environmental dangers. Much of the work went to companies and friends close to the congressman, and few of the projects met their goals, a Washington Post investigation shows.

But the institute's spotty performance and internal turmoil have not deterred Murtha (D-Pa.) or his alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which houses the center, from seeking more money or dreaming big about the future.

Plans are underway to move the Murtha Institute from its dormitory basement suite to a $53 million IUP athletic arena and conference center now under construction. Murtha secured a $3 million federal earmark for the building two years ago, and he sought another earmark this year before abruptly changing course as investigations of his defense appropriations and lobbying connections heated up. Murtha redirected some of that request to IUP research.

In a district that also boasts a regional airport named for Murtha and nearly a dozen other facilities bearing his name, the institute is another example of how the congressman has used federal money to revitalize this economically depressed former coal-mining region. In doing so, he has raised questions among watchdog groups and outside critics about using taxpayer money to fund projects that appear to mostly benefit Murtha loyalists.

"He who pays the most homage to Murtha is the one who gets the money," said Cathy Wentzel, who managed a research group linked to the Murtha Institute and left when her boss was fired.

Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey declined to comment. IUP President Tony Atwater acknowledged in a written statement that leadership changes "may have contributed to deferred and limited productivity in certain areas."

"IUP has implemented an extensive and rigorous review process that seeks to identify federal funding research projects that have a high probability of producing sound data for important national and world needs and we are proud of the progress the university has made in this area," he said.

Murtha did not graduate from IUP, Pennsylvania's fifth-largest university, but he took graduate courses there. The university often turned to him with funding requests from its various research entities. The school was particularly successful with homeland security requests, securing about $20 million in grants and earmarks through the congressman from the late 1990s until 2003.

University officials and business leaders envisioned creating in the city of Indiana a replica of the defense mecca that Murtha spawned an hour to the south in Johnstown, using earmarks to spur growth. In 2004, a year after IUP founded the Murtha Institute, the university won $18.5 million in federal funding, mostly for security research.

But the institute and its sister organizations struggled amid questions about its direction. Jeffrey Crane, its director from 2006 until last month, said the institute for years served as a "paper institute" with no clear mission. Crane was rebuffed by the IUP administration when he shared his concerns about contractor billing practices on some projects that the Murtha Institute was ostensibly overseeing, according to correspondence and to professors involved in the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Crane declined to comment, but acknowledged that he had no power over earmark money flowing to contractors.

"Whether or not I agree with what they've done with the projects or money so far, I have nothing to do with that," he said.

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