Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Trading Earmarks For Campaign Contributions Worse Than Thought

A Center for Public Integrity investigation has uncovered a widespread practice of congressmen who sit on a defense appropriations committee chaired by the controversial Rep. Jim Murtha (D-PA) trading earmarks for campaign contributions. Murtha and Indiana's U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky were easily the worst offenders, but at least three-fourths of the members engaged in similar behavior according to a computer analysis performed by the Center for Public Integrity. Here's a snippet of the organization's findings:

Murtha and fellow panel members Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) steered a host of earmarks to PMA clients, and those clients and PMA staffers gave campaign contributions to the lawmakers. Aspects of those relationships are the subject of a Justice Department probe, which is thought to be looking at whether there were explicit quid pro quo exchanges of favors for cash, which would make crimes out of relationships that are otherwise legal. The House ethics committee is also looking at the situation, and the PMA Group closed following an FBI raid late last year.

Now, a computer analysis by the Center for Public Integrity has revealed that fully three-quarters of the subcommittee members have been involved in similar patterns of behavior — in circles of relationships fraught with potential conflicts of interest, involving former congressional staffers-turned lobbyists, earmarks, and campaign cash. In these circles, former staffers became lobbyists for defense contractors; the contractors received earmarks from the representatives; and the representatives received campaign contributions from the lobbyists or the contractors.

The Center’s analysis, which covered fiscal year 2008, found these relationship circles included not only PMA but 10 other lobbying firms. More than 50 earmarks are involved, totaling more than $100 million, while the campaign contributions amounted to more than $1 million. The examination relied on data from Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the U.S. Senate’s Office of Public Records . . .

After regaining both houses of Congress in the November 2006 elections, the new Democratic leadership moved quickly to pass rules changes and legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed in January 2007, “We have broken the link between lobbyists and legislation.” Though the new majority’s reforms included expanded lobbyist disclosure requirements, restrictions on favors lobbyists can do for members, and increased earmark transparency, critics warned at the time that it left loopholes for earmarks.

Despite the increased amount of data about what is in earmarks and who requests them, they continue to be used extensively by members to direct executive branch spending. The controversial PMA scandal — and all of the earmarks examined by the Center — took place under the reformed system. Some have proposed additional measures to curb earmarks. New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes has proposed making it illegal for members of Congress to take campaign contributions from those who benefit from their earmarks. Arizona Republican Jeff Flake supports this legislation and has offered similar proposals of his own. “No member of Congress should be able to award no-bid contracts — which is what many earmarks are — to private companies or other institutions,” Flake argued in a statement he released in April. “Earmarks aren’t a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. They are a problem that infects the entire Congress.”
This is what the Center for Public Integrity had to say about Visclosky's earmarks for contributions:

Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat in his 13th term in the House, is a former appropriations committee staff member himself. He is tied to the PMA Group through his former appropriations committee assistant, legislative director, and chief of staff Richard M. Kaelin.

After leaving his position with Visclosky in 2003, Kaelin joined PMA. Among his dozens of lobbying clients were at least ten defense contractors for whom his old boss secured a total of $14 million in earmarks. The companies, whose earmarks ranged from $800,000 to $2,000,000 apiece, were: 21st Century Systems Inc., BriarTek Inc., General Atomics, General Dynamics Corp., NuVant Systems Inc., Optimal Solutions & Technology, Parametric Technology Corp., ProLogic Inc., RaySat Antenna Systems LLC, and Sierra Nevada Corp. The earmarks were for such items as methanol fuel cell battery rechargers and a man-overboard identification system. Visclosky’s generosity was well rewarded: he and his Calumet leadership PAC received $124,100 from these contractors’ corporate PACs; $170,350 from individuals in the firms’ leadership, $14,000 from PMA’s company political action committee, and $13,000 from Kaelin himself. All told, Visclosky’s political committees received more than $321,000. On August 27, the Federal Election Commission approved a request from his re-election committee to allow him to use campaign funds to pay the legal bills for his current and former staffers as they deal with the PMA investigation. Visclosky’s office did not respond to a request for comment.


daltonsbriefs said...

I'm told that under "new" rules set in place since the PMA scandal broke, lawmakers are pushing earmark dollars to public entities or universities. This may sound nice on the surface, but some of these universities are in working relationships with members of the list of companies you provided, using the earmark money.

Probably just an end around to do the same thing, but make it look more kosher.

POPA said...

The one good Jon McCain idea - abolishing earmarks. But until this is done, I don't think you can fault representatives with the power for doing it. What's the alternative? Let tax dollars flow from their districts to other people who don't mind playing this game?

dcrutch said...

According to the Citizens Against Goverment Waste assessment of McCain's record on Arizona earmarks: "Yes".

It has to start somewhere.