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John Murtha dies; longtime congressman was master of pork-barrel politics

By Carol D. Leonnig and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A01

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam War veteran who staunchly supported military spending and became a master of pork-barrel politics, died Monday at Virginia Hospital Center. The 19-term lawmaker died from complications of gallbladder surgery. He was 77.

Elected to Congress in 1974 from a southwestern Pennsylvania district that has been economically devastated by the decline of the nation's coal-mining and steel industries, the gruff and jowly Murtha was beloved by his constituents for tapping billions of dollars in federal money to seed new industries there.

He was revered among Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- for his skill in using the power of the federal purse to make kings and deals. A right-hand man of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he was considered one of the most influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill and credited with her ascension.

Critics dubbed Murtha, the chairman of the powerful subcommittee that controls Pentagon spending, the "King of Pork" for the volume of taxpayer money he could direct to the area around his home town of Johnstown. Most of the largess came in defense and military research contracts he steered to companies based in his district or with small offices there.

The former Marine became a mentor to lawmakers trying to learn how to work Washington's power levers but also a symbol of the controversial congressional practice of "earmarking." In that process, lawmakers can add federal money to the budget to give no-bid contracts to pet projects and companies of their choosing. Murtha faced a drumbeat of questions about possible ethical conflicts in his earmarks, as executives and lobbyists for the firms receiving the earmarks were among his most generous campaign contributors.

Murtha was firmly unapologetic, saying it was his duty to help his district create jobs and U.S. troops gain new research and tools to help them in battle. To a television crew following him in a House office building with questions about potential conflicts, he held up his miniature red, page-worn copy of the Constitution.

"What it says is the Congress of the United States appropriates the money," he said. "Got that?"

Volunteered for combat

John Patrick Murtha Jr. was born June 17, 1932, in New Martinsville, W.Va., and raised in Westmoreland County, Pa. He long credited the resilient women in his family, including his mother, with being key to his success. His father, an alcoholic, died early. Murtha said he didn't drink for that reason, and despite the many political fundraisers where a congressman is either honored guest or host, Murtha was known for making an early appearance and an early departure.

He entered the Marine Corps in 1952, during the Korean War period, and served until 1955. He returned to Johnstown to run the family carwash and finish his undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962, and he joined the Marine Corps Reserve. During the Vietnam conflict, he volunteered for combat and served near Da Nang in 1966 and 1967.

In 1955, he married Joyce Bell. She survives, along with their daughter, Donna Murtha; twin sons, Pat Murtha and John M. Murtha; and three grandchildren.

Back from Vietnam, Murtha was recruited by the local Democratic Party to challenge longtime Rep. John P. Saylor (R) and presented himself as hawkish on military affairs. "To me, it is academic whether we should be in Vietnam," the young veteran said at the time. "Our men are fighting their hearts out so we can sit at home and enjoy the luxuries of this great nation. We have to unite."

He lost that race but won election to the Pennsylvania House. When Saylor died in office, Murtha won a special election to the U.S. House in 1974. In a district with a strong conservative tradition, Murtha's victory was taken in part as a rejection of then-President Richard M. Nixon. His slogan: "One honest man can make a difference."

Murtha, whose military decorations included the Bronze Star and two awards of the Purple Heart, was one of the first Vietnam veterans to sit in the House. His district returned him regularly to office, and after 10 years Murtha had quietly established himself as a key Capitol Hill player who could woo lawmakers of divergent views to join forces.

"His reputation is, if you're going to put a coalition together, you have to have Murtha," then-Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) told The Washington Post for a 1985 profile of Murtha.

In one of the more painful moments of his career, Murtha was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. As a result of the FBI undercover operation, several Capitol Hill figures were charged with agreeing to pay bribes to agents posing as representatives of Arab sheiks. Murtha was taped talking with an undercover agent about his interest in helping his district, but he was not charged and said he did nothing wrong.

In 2005, he became a darling of the Democratic antiwar movement when the prominent hawk announced that he was in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq. He had supported the resolution to go to war in 2002, but he later denounced the Bush administration's war effort as badly planned, calling it "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."

Murtha lost his shot, however, to become House majority leader after Democrats retook control of the House in 2006. He had successfully led Pelosi's campaign to be speaker at that time, but some colleagues argued that he could be a political liability in the leadership because of what they called his old-style politics.

Ethics investigations

In the past two years, Murtha and several close associates came under the scrutiny of ethics and investigative panels.

In 2008, the FBI raided a powerhouse lobbying firm, PMA Group, whose founder, Paul Magliocchetti, was a close friend of Murtha's and which had had unique success in winning earmarks from Murtha for its clients.

In January 2009, federal investigators raided Kuchera Industries, a Pennsylvania company that Murtha had helped grow with more than $100 million in military contracts and earmarks. The company was suspended from receiving further Navy contracts pending an investigation into allegations that the company had defrauded the government in its billing.

In May 2009, the Justice Department subpoenaed records from the offices of a Murtha protege, Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind). Investigators were looking into allegations that Visclosky's chief of staff, who announced his resignation shortly after the subpoena, had pressured lobbyists to donate to Visclosky's campaign in exchange for earmarks for their clients, two sources familiar with the probe said.

In December 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics reported that it saw no reason to continue its investigation of Murtha's actions on behalf of PMA Group and recommended that the House ethics committee take no action against him.

In March 2009, Murtha told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that every lawmaker looks out for his own: "If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district. . . . Every president would like to have all the power and not have Congress change anything. But we're closest to the people."

He had a bravado that even his critics admired, in part because he could often back up his seemingly big talk. He publicly squared off with many a heavyweight, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney and even a few presidents.

Last month, Murtha chuckled when asked about President Obama's assertion that he was going to freeze all discretionary spending.

"Well, he can call for it, but we're the guys who make the decision," the congressman said. "I always remind them of that."

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