The art of the deal: Buying votes on Capitol Hill

Rep. John Murtha celebrated his 35th anniversary as a congressman by getting an early start on his next campaign, staging an invitation-only fundraising luncheon for dozens of lobbyists and defense contractors at the private Army-Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va.

But last month’s event, with tickets starting at $1,400, was missing one longtime friend: Paul Magliocchetti, the founder of a lobbying firm that over the past two decades has been one of Murtha’s biggest sources of campaign donations.

Magliocchetti was absent because of what had happened three months earlier. At 7:30 one evening shortly after Thanksgiving, the FBI raided his lobbying firm, carting off records of the firm’s political action committee and files of some of its lobbyists.

The work of those lobbyists took them often to Murtha’s Capitol Hill office, as well as those of fellow Democrats Peter Visclosky of Indiana, Jim Moran of Virginia and others on the defense appropriations subcommittee that Murtha chairs. The FBI says the investigation is continuing, highlighting the close tie between special-interest spending provisions known as earmarks and the raising of campaign cash.

For Murtha, Visclosky and Moran the practice has paved the way for their congressional careers. In 2007 and 2008, the three directed $137 million to defense contractors who were paying Magliocchetti’s PMA Group to get them government business. That kind of clout put the midsized 33-lobbyist firm into the big leagues, ranking it in the top 10 in billings among Washington lobbying shops.

At the same time, the three lawmakers received huge amounts of political donations from PMA lobbyists and their clients. Murtha has collected $2.37 million in campaign contributions from PMA’s lobbyists and the companies it has represented since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Visclosky has collected $1.36 million; Moran, $997,348.

Those political donations have followed a distinct pattern: The giving is especially heavy in March, which is prime time for submitting written earmark requests. Over the past two decades, $1.1 million has flowed to the campaigns and leadership PACs of Murtha, Visclosky and Moran from PMA and its clients in March alone.

Asked about the relationship between earmarks and contributions, Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said, "Every person that comes into our office with an appropriations request is treated equally." He said every request is properly vetted, and the office recommends funding only for meritorious, cost-effective requests. Moran’s office said that it checks with the Pentagon on proposed earmarks and that whether someone "chooses to provide campaign support has no bearing on our vetting process." Visclosky’s office did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Not since the FBI caught him on videotape in the Abscam corruption probe nearly three decades ago has Murtha faced so many questions about his ethics.

In that 1980 sting operation, agents captured Murtha on videotape turning down a $50,000 bribe offer, while holding out the possibility that he might take money in the future. "We do business for awhile, maybe I’ll be interested and maybe I won’t," Murtha said on the tape.

Six congressmen and one senator were convicted in the case. Murtha wasn’t charged, but the government named him an unindicted co-conspirator, and he testified against two other congressmen.

This time around, the issue is congressional earmarks. The practice became infamous in the 2004 scandal that sent superlobbyist Jack Abramoff to prison and earned the congressional spending committee a new nickname: "The Favor Factory." Earmarking continues, and Congress defends it as an exercise of its constitutional powers and its knowledge of local needs.

President Barack Obama says he wants to curb earmarks, but nonetheless recently signed a $410 billion spending bill that contains 7,991 of them.

One reason for the durability of earmarking is the benefits it brings to those who do it. Moran, for example, got $16,000 in campaign donations from PMA lobbyists in 1997 and 1998 before joining the defense appropriations subcommmittee. In 1999 and 2000, after he joined the panel, the contributions tripled to $47,500.

PMA’s political giving is large for a firm its size. Since 1989, the firm’s employees have given current members of Congress $3.4 million in campaign donations, more than most of the larger firms in town.

Murtha’s earmarks for defense contractors include $14.7 million in the past two years for Kuchera Defense Systems, a Windber, Pa., firm raided in January by the FBI and by investigators from the Pentagon. Washington lobbyist Jim Ervin, who has long represented Kuchera, attended Murtha’s Feb. 27 fundraiser.

Murtha has become such an institution that major defense contractors headquartered elsewhere have opened offices in his district.

Recent Murtha earmarks to former PMA clients both large and small amount to $50 million to 10 firms in Pennsylvania towns such as Lemont Furnace, Latrobe, Indiana and Johnstown.

Murtha and Magliocchetti have ties that go back to the 1980s, when Magliocchetti worked on the defense subcommittee staff.

The lobbyist was among the political supporters who organized a financial rescue of Murtha’s floundering 2008 re-election effort, according to three people close to PMA, which is in the process of disbanding. In a matter of days in October, Magliocchetti and others put Murtha’s campaign back on track after his impolitic remark that his home base of western Pennsylvania is racist.

Magliocchetti has business interests aside from the lobbying activities, including plans to open a restaurant in Florida.

According to the three people familiar with PMA, one aspect of the FBI probe focuses on the fact that Magliocchetti put two people from Florida – a hotel wine steward and a hotel golf director – on the firm’s board of directors, along with his daughter and a PMA accountant who Magliocchetti married at the end of last year. All of them, as well as several of Magliocchetti’s relatives, have made extensive campaign donations, raising the question of whether Magliocchetti illegally reimbursed them. The reimbursement issue is part of the FBI investigation, according to the three people with knowledge of the case.

In addition to campaign money, Magliocchetti built other bridges to Murtha’s subcommittee.

One PMA lobbyist, Richard Kaelin, was a former chief of staff to Visclosky and a former Visclosky assistant on the House Appropriations Committee. Another PMA lobbyist, Melissa Koloszar, was a former chief of staff and legislative director for Moran.

One Response to "The art of the deal: Buying votes on Capitol Hill"

  1. woody188  March 23, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Murtha seems to be one of those Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about.

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