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In e-mails, lobbyists perceive ties between campaign cash, earmarks

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010; A03

Lobbyists and corporate officials talked bluntly in e-mail exchanges about connections between making generous campaign donations and securing federal funds through members of an important House Appropriations subcommittee, according to not-yet-public documents reviewed by ethics investigators.

In summer 2007, for example, senior executives at a small McLean defense firm tried to figure out which of them would buy a ticket to a wine-tasting fundraiser for Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense. At the time, the company sought help from Moran's office in securing contracts through special earmarks added to the defense bill.

In an e-mail exchange, one senior officer said he didn't understand why he had to attend the fundraiser when he didn't even drink wine.

"You don't have to drink," Innovative Concepts' chief technology officer, Andrew Feldstein, shot back in an e-mail. "You just have to pay."

"LOL," responded the other officer.

The fundraiser was hosted by the PMA Group, a powerful lobbying firm whose unusual success in obtaining "earmarked" contracts from members of the military subcommittee was a key focus of a recent House ethics investigation.

Moran raked in $91,900 in campaign checks to his personal campaign and leadership PAC that day. He secured an $800,000 earmark for Innovative Concepts in the 2008 defense appropriations bill.

The e-mails were among the documents reviewed by congressional ethics investigators over the past nine months in a wide-ranging earmarks probe. The investigation ended last week when the House ethics committee issued a report exonerating all seven members under scrutiny. The Washington Post gained access to some of those internal records.

Moran spokeswoman Emily Blout said the congressman "has no control over communications among lobbyists or with their clients regarding any false perceptions they might be operating under."

An investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics uncovered dozens of examples of lobbyists and corporate officers expressing their belief that donations would help them. The OCE declined to share or discuss the documents reviewed by The Post. An OCE spokesman said such records would not be made public unless they directly linked donations with lawmakers' official acts.

(The OCE had recommended clearing five of the members and continuing to investigate two others, Reps. Peter J. Visclosky [D-Ind.] and Todd Tiahrt [R-Kan.]. The more senior House ethics panel cleared all seven.)

"These are hard-nosed business people," said Sarah Dufendach of Common Cause. "They are used to getting value for their dollar. The reason they keep investing their money this way is because over and over again it's proven to work for them."

Feldstein, who is now a semi-retired consultant to Innovative Concepts, said in an interview that campaign donations help a company become a "known face" with influential lawmakers. "Those events are really mingling events. It's unfortunate you have to pay for them, but that's the way it is," said Feldstein, who gave to the Moran campaign.

When PMA lobbyists talked to defense clients, they often urged them to give to powerful members of the Appropriations subcommittee -- and occasionally reminded the clients about earmarks won or being sought from those lawmakers.

Inside the Arlington County-based defense firm Argon ST, Gabrielle Carruth, a former staffer to the late Rep. John P. Murtha, worked as the company's chief lobbyist. She urged Argon executives to donate corporate and personal money to Murtha -- the panel's chairman -- and mentioned earmarks in her pitch.

"As a company, Congress helped us out with 29.6 million dollars of enhancements, most coming from Mr. Murtha. He was having one last fundraiser at the Army and Navy club Tuesday. I really could use your help with a contribution," Carruth wrote in a September 2008 e-mail to a colleague.

Murtha (D-Pa.), who had been dubbed the King of Pork by his critics, was interviewed by investigators and told them that he didn't make any connections to donations when requesting earmarks for companies. Murtha said his staff made earmark decisions, which he usually rubber-stamped.

But some company officials chafed at the steady stream of donations that their lobbyists and others urged them to make.

"Tell me again: Why do I have to go a Joyce Murtha breast cancer charity event?" asked one senior defense company official.

In considering making a $20,000 company donation to Visclosky, one executive asked for a justification.

The firm's vice president mentioned Visclosky's past earmark support at a time when the company was seeking more help from the congressman. "That's what each of the companies working with PMA and Visclosky have been asked to contribute," the executive wrote. "We have gotten 10M in adds from him."

Lobbyists and lawmakers' staff members were also direct at times about the donation totals.

Carruth, when writing to Moran's campaign staff about a fundraiser the company was hosting for the lawmaker, asked the finance director of Moran's Virginia Leadership PAC how much Moran was seeking in donations. Carruth now works in government affairs for Lockheed and, through the company's press office, declined to comment.

"So what is expected of Argon as host?" Carruth wrote.

"Jim was expecting 10K," Hannah Margetich wrote back.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this article.

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