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.
One of the institute's signature projects was supposed to be the National Emergency and Disaster Information System (NEDIS), a software system that would allow National Guard personnel to enter details of a crisis scene into a hand-held device that would spit out instructions for dealing with specific threats.
Jack McInnis, a former Navy program manager, pitched the idea to Murtha's office, and his then company, Production Technology in Arlington, won earmarked funding to develop the system in partnership with IUP. Thomas McCaffrey, a Production Technology employee and former deputy D.C. fire chief, set out to create an online inventory of rescue needs.
But developing the software proved challenging. The project's energy "just seemed to fizzle out," said Mona Garrison, a former IUP programmer.
Murtha's district office closely watched the project, warning IUP officials and contractors during a meeting that they had better deliver a working system soon, two sources said. McCaffrey left the project when a new program manager, Tom Dalton, questioned his billing and contribution.
"It was pretty ugly," said McCaffrey, who defended his billing. "Every time I turned around, there was another company working on the software." Two years later, Dalton left when IUP shifted control of the project to John Cavendish, who headed an affiliated IUP research entity. But Cavendish came under fire from professors who accused him of loose accounting of federal grants.
Cavendish paid out $880,000 to the Rockville company Dalton had hired for software development, but he also paid substantial fees to two other companies for similar work, tax records show. He paid $1 million to a firm in Bowie, Md., that was hired on the recommendation of Murtha's office, and $326,000 to another recommended firm that used Robert "Kit" Murtha, Murtha's brother, as its lobbyist. Cavendish said he retained the firms because "up there, believe me, you want to hook up with companies that Murtha smiles on."
Cavendish resigned in 2005, denying that he had mishandled money. In an interview, he contended that he was ousted because IUP leaders resented his questions about the use of earmark money.
"Just giving people money is almost always going to lead to a lot of waste, like it did there," Cavendish said.
After spending $6 million on the project, IUP finally won National Guard acceptance of its NEDIS system. But the Guard never deployed the device in the field.
Although the project ended in disappointment, Murtha found more earmarked funding for clients of McInnis, and this year he has requested an additional $3.5 million for a biomedical sensor project to be done by a new company McCaffrey founded.
"I think it's kind of sad," McCaffrey said of NEDIS. "I know Mr. Murtha really wanted this done. If the people didn't do what he wanted done, then that's not good."
McCaffrey, who also does lobbying work, secured other earmarks through Murtha's office for his clients.
A more successful institute effort was a training program on weapons of mass destruction that won $4.4 million in start-up earmarks soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
IUP took up the effort with Concurrent Technologies, a Johnstown firm Murtha helped create in 1988 with earmarks. Some at IUP questioned why Concurrent was entitled to half of the money, but spokeswoman Mary Bevan said the firm "performed a significant amount of the total workload."
Murtha also proved to be an IUP ally in its plan to build a regional athletic and conference center. And by agreeing to move the Murtha Institute into the shiny new complex, the university tapped into another federal funding avenue.
Construction began in November on what is to be the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. The center, named for the local family that owned the land, will include an arena, an auditorium, a hotel and convention space.
The state agreed to put up $20 million if IUP could raise the same amount. Murtha pitched in to help.
He successfully set aside $3 million in the 2006 transportation spending bill and promised to deliver $4 million more this year, but then he redirected some of the money to IUP research and declined to explain why.
Atwater predicted at the November groundbreaking ceremony that Indiana's days of economic hardship were over.
"Indiana needs to be lifted up to a level of commercial and economic resilience not seen since earlier decades when 'coal was king,' " he said. "That lift is coming, and it is the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.