Ethics office asks for investigation of lobby firm PMA Group's clients

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 1:23 PM

A congressional ethics office asked the Justice Department on Thursday to review evidence it found suggesting that companies are providing campaign cash to lawmakers for no-bid contracts, and consider a criminal probe.

The Office of Congressional Ethics investigation focused on companies that were clients of the once powerful lobby firm the PMA Group and sought earmarked contracts from lawmakers who sat on the House Appropriations committee. The referral was an end-run around the House ethics committee, which earlier this year declined to investigate the matter as the OCE recommended and said it found no substantiation that lawmakers were engaged in a quid pro quo with corporations that had been generous contributors.

The referral to the Justice Department focuses on evidence that company executives privately discussed the importance of giving specific Congress members money in connection with those members steering lucrative contracts their way.

In one noted e-mail exchange, a McLean defense contractor seeking an earmark complained he didn't want to go to a wine-tasting fundraiser hosted by PMA for Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) because he didn't drink.

His boss responded: "You don't have to drink. You just have to pay."

The e-mails were among the documents reviewed by congressional ethics investigators over nine months in a wide-ranging earmarks probe. The investigation by the OCE uncovered dozens of examples of lobbyists and corporate officers expressing their belief that donations would help them.

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.

In fiscal 2008, the seven lawmakers under scrutiny sponsored $112 million worth of earmarks for clients of PMA 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.

But the House ethics committee ruled in February that the seven lawmakers had not violated any rules or laws. In its 305-page report, the ethics committee said that lawmakers are free to raise campaign money from the companies they are benefiting as long as the deciding factors in granting those "earmarks" are "criteria independent" of the contributions.

The PMA Group folded last year 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.

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