House ethics panel ends inquiry into Visclosky

By Carol Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; 3:21 PM

A team of congressional investigators believed they had probable cause that Rep. Pete Visclosky sought campaign contributions in exchange for steering federal contracts to corporate donors, but a House ethics panel decided not to inquire further into the matter.

A report from the House ethics committee, released Friday, shows that a preliminary investigation found e-mail evidence suggesting that Visclosky's staff arranged campaign fundraisers for corporate clients seeking earmarks, and the donors believed their donations were linked to whether they would win earmarks from the Indiana Democrat. The Office of Congressional Ethics recommended that the more powerful House ethics committee use its subpoena power to require Visclosky and his staff to answer questions under oath about his earmarking practice.

But the committee said they found no evidence of wrongdoing, and opted not to subpoena Visclosky or any other records to answer the questions the OCE had raised.

The House ethics committee wrote in its report that the widespread perception of lobbyists that donations helped obtain earmark requests does not constitute a violation of House ethics rules by a lawmaker or staffer. A source close to the probe said Visclosky's arrangement of fundraisers for earmark requests -- in such close proximity to earmarks being granted -- raised eyebrows, but did not prove anything. Deciding not to subpoena members was a judgment call, the source said.

Visclosky's attorney did not immediately respond to e-mails or calls seeking comment.

Friday, the House ethics committee announced that it had cleared seven lawmakers, including Visclosky, in a year-long probe that explored whether they may have violated ethics rules in steering hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to contractors represented by the PMA Group. The once powerful defense lobby firm closed down in November after an FBI raid on its Arlington offices, part of a federal investigation into whether PMA's founder and staff directed illegal campaign contributions to lawmakers who helped his clients obtain earmarks.

Federal investigators are also probing the earmark practices of Visclosky, with a focus on allegations that his staff appeared to be offering the lawmaker's help with earmarks in exchange for campaign donations to Visclosky.

In its preliminary investigation, which precedes a full House ethics committee probe, the Office of Congressional Ethics found evidence that Visclosky and his staff arranged fundraisers specifically for companies seeking earmarks -- within days and weeks of when those companies had to submit their requests to the lawmaker and when Visclosky himself faced a deadline for endorsing their requests with his Appropriations panel. A fundraiser at Johnny's Half Shell was tailored for companies seeking water and energy earmarks; another at Bobby Van's was designed for companies seeking defense earmarks.

"[T]he Board finds that there is probable cause to believe that Representative Visclosky solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in exchange for or because of an official act, or solicited or accepted contributions or other items of value in a manner which gave the appearance that the contributions were linked to an official act," the OCE wrote.

The OCE also found e-mails in which company lobbyists discussed that they and other companies seeking earmarks had been asked to donate $20,000 to Visclosky, though it is unclear who asked. In some e-mails, the lobbyists and corporate officials stress that the donations are linked to earmark success.

"That's what all the companies working with PMA and Visclosky have been asked to contribute," said an official at Sierra Nevada Corporation, a defense contractor, explaining his justification for the $20,000 gift. "He's been a good supporter of SNC. We have gotten over 10M in adds from him. Let me know if we need to discuss further."

OCE had stressed the need to question Visclosky to find out what he knew of these connections being made between donations and his earmarking decisions.

"Also, the documents the OCE obtained through its investigation show that PMA clients perceived a connection between appropriations requests and campaign contributions to Representative Visclosky," the OCE wrote. "Without further information that can only be obtained through witness interviews with Representative Visclosky, the OCE cannot fully assess his role in or knowledge of what appears to be the linking of contributions to the receipt of earmarks."

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