A congressman, a lobbying firm and a swift path to earmarks
Democrat supported funds for tech companies, many of which supported him
It takes a while for most start-up companies to gain the confidence of a U.S. congressman and the promise of federal funds. But last year, a small Illinois company accomplished its goal in 16 days with the help of Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, a little-known Indiana Democrat who sits on the House committee that funds the Pentagon.
In rapid succession, the three-employee technology firm, NanoSonix, filed its incorporation papers in Skokie, Ill., and hired a Washington lobbying firm, K&L Gates, which boasted to clients of its close relationship with Visclosky. A week later, Visclosky wrote a letter of support for a $2.4 million earmark for NanoSonix from the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.
"I understand how this can look from the outside," NanoSonix chief executive Sean Murdock said in an interview, describing his company's rush to get research funding to develop night-vision goggles. "My belief was we had to pursue government funding if this technology was going to see the light of day."
Murdock's company was not the only one to find a winning formula in pursuit of federal earmarks through Visclosky. The congressman sponsored or supported at least $44 million in earmarks in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 for more than 15 technology firms that had hired K&L Gates as lobbyists. None of the companies operated in Visclosky's home state, but nearly all of them donated to Visclosky's campaign just before or soon after receiving the promise of federal money.
K&L Gates used its relationship with Visclosky as a marketing tool, a document obtained by The Washington Post reveals. "We also have a very good relationship with Representative Peter Visclosky, chairman of the House Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee and third ranking member on the defense appropriations committee," lobbyist Edward C. Olivares, a former Army Special Forces officer, wrote to a potential client in early 2007, soon after Democrats took control of the House. "We can ensure that Mr. Visclosky has visibility of this important project when funding is debated."
Federal investigators are scrutinizing Visclosky's earmarks and whether a member of his staff tried to raise campaign money by promising funding. The Post recently reported that the Justice Department probe is examining the role played by Visclosky's recently departed chief of staff, Charles Brimmer, in negotiating with lobbyists and companies to solicit campaign donations. Brimmer's attorney declined to comment.
The K&L connection
Much of the public focus in the investigation has been on PMA Group, a former lobbying powerhouse that won $299 million in earmarks in the past two years from the defense panel -- $34 million of it directly from Visclosky. Visclosky's pattern of help for K&L Gates clients has not been previously disclosed.
A Post review shows that the K&L Gates clients winning Visclosky's support, along with their lobbyists and investors, donated almost $200,000 to Visclosky and an additional $130,000 to the House Democratic campaign committee since 2005. The donations often came in clusters, around the time Visclosky's committee was crafting its annual earmarks, which are added to the budget by committee members and do not go through the competitive or approval processes required for most government contracts.
The earmarks helped the companies fund their nanotechnology and biotechnology research into making cheaper fuels, stronger concrete and faster semiconductors and also increased the likelihood of their success or sale. One venture capitalist, after helping steer almost $16,000 to Visclosky's campaign, sold his fledgling company for nearly $20 million as the lawmaker endorsed a $2 million earmark for the company.
Both Visclosky and K&L Gates declined interview requests. Visclosky's attorney, Reid Weingarten, said in an e-mail: "Congressman Visclosky proudly helped many companies doing innovative and important work receive federal funds. Some of these companies chose to support his campaigns with legal and public contributions. This is traditional, open and utterly normal activity on the Hill that is protected by our laws and Constitution."
K&L Gates said in a statement that its actions were an aboveboard effort to get "cutting edge technology before key decision makers."
"While Members of Congress may lawfully seek campaign contributions from our clients, and some of our clients have attended their fundraisers, we have always been clear that campaign contributions cannot be a condition for any appropriation or official action," the statement said.