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Ethics panel clears 7 on earmarks

By Paul Kane and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A02

The House ethics committee ruled Friday that seven lawmakers who steered hundreds of millions of dollars in largely no-bid contracts to clients of a lobbying firm had not violated any rules or laws by also collecting large campaign donations from those contractors.

In a 305-page report, the ethics committee declared that lawmakers are free to raise campaign money from the very companies they are benefiting so long as the deciding factors in granting those "earmarks" are "criteria independent" of the contributions. The report served as a blunt rejection of ethics watchdogs and a different group of congressional investigators, who have contended that in some instances the connection between donations and earmarks was so close that it had to be inappropriate.

"Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributions," the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said in a unanimous statement.

Ethics watchdogs issued sharp denunciations, citing portions of the report that showed that the private companies thought their donations helped them win earmarks. The lawmakers -- Reps. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) -- claimed vindication.

"They found no cause. They basically said we were completely exonerated," Moran, whose former top aide once worked at the lobbying firm under investigation, said in an interview explaining his office's earmark process. "We screened everything. It didn't make a difference how well we knew someone."

The late John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who until his death earlier this month chaired the defense appropriations subcommittee, was also cleared. The other six lawmakers served on Murtha's panel. In fiscal 2008 alone, the seven lawmakers sponsored $112 million worth of earmarks for clients of the PMA Group while accepting more than $350,000 in contributions from the firm's lobbyists and its clients, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.

The final word on this practice may come from the Justice Department. The PMA Group folded a year ago after an FBI raid on its Arlington offices, part of an investigation into whether its founder and staff directed illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers who helped clients obtain earmarks. Last spring, a federal grand jury issued subpoenas to Visclosky, a former aide and his political committees.

The ethics committee decided to clear Visclosky even though the Office of Congressional Ethics, which conducts preliminary reviews, found probable cause that Visclosky sought contributions in exchange for steering federal contracts. It recommended that the more powerful House ethics committee subpoena Visclosky and his staff to answer questions under oath about his earmarking practice. The full ethics panel opted not to subpoena Visclosky or any other records.

The committee released OCE's investigative work, including e-mails suggesting that Visclosky's fundraisers were specifically targeted toward PMA's clients seeking "earmarks." Fundraisers were held within days and weeks of when those companies had to submit earmark requests to the lawmaker. Company lobbyists discussed in e-mails that earmark requesters had been asked to donate $20,000 to Visclosky, though it is unclear who asked. "That's what all the companies working with PMA and Visclosky have been asked to contribute," said an official at Sierra Nevada Corp., a defense contractor, explaining the donation request. Visclosky's office and his attorneys declined to comment.

For some, the ethics committee announcement was expected given the OCE's recommendations last month that five of the seven lawmakers should be cleared. Tiahrt was recommended for further review because he declined to sit for an interview, but he was also cleared by the full committee.

"This comes as no surprise because there was never anything to justify a review in the first place," Tiahrt said in a statement.

The committee's action came as it also closed out a case involving Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and five other lawmakers who traveled to conferences at Caribbean resorts that were underwritten by private corporations, which is against House rules. The panel cleared the other five but said Rangel should have known about the arrangements made by two staffers.

Rangel rebuffed calls for him to step down as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stood behind him. "They have said he did not knowingly violate the rules," Pelosi said.

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