Specter faces an ethics problem

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sen. Arlen Specter is defending a staff member against published charges that millions of dollars in special defense projects had been directed to companies represented by the lobbying firm led by the aide’s husband.

Specter was responding to a front-page report this week in USA Today that said his office was instrumental in getting $50 million in projects for six clients of a Washington-based lobbying firm, American Defense International, between 2002 and 2005. American Defense International’s president is Michael Herson, the husband of Vicki Siegel, who handled Specter’s work for the Senate Appropriations Committee until last year when she scaled back her work to one day a week.

Questions remain about how some of the money ended up in defense appropriations bills, particularly because three of the six companies listed Herson as their sole lobbyist in Washington at the time they received the money set aside in defense appropriation bills by Specter’s office.

Though Specter defended some of the projects as important for Pennsylvania and national defense, he said he had never heard of some of the companies.

The funding was placed in the defense legislation through an increasingly controversial procedure known as "earmarking" _ which allows lawmakers to set aside or "earmark" money in spending bills for pet projects or initiatives, usually benefiting their states or districts.

Specter said his office gets hundreds of requests for the earmarked funds each year and that it would be impossible for him to review each project.

"When I went over these lists of companies only Drexel (University) rang a bell and there I have met on occasion with some of the officials but infrequently and I couldn’t tell you what it was about or when it occurred," Specter said.

But Specter emphasized that Herson never lobbied his office, and said Siegel assured him she never lobbied for the projects. Just an hour and a half after a conference call with reporters, William H. Reynolds, Specter’s chief of staff, supplied the names of the people they said requested the money for the six projects.

The recipients were Drexel in Philadelphia; Gentex Corp., which has a facility in Carbondale, Lackawanna County; Gestalt LLC, which has an office in Montgomery County; 3e Technologies, with facilities in Indiana County and Philadelphia; and Power+Energy Inc., and Universal Space Network Inc., both of which have offices in suburban Philadelphia.

Specter and Reynolds said they do not believe there has been any violation of law or Senate ethics rules, but Reynolds said the office is taking the precaution of referring the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee for review.

"I would be shocked if (Siegel) was involved in any earmarking knowing that her husband was involved, but I’m going to check it out," Specter said. "I do not have any allegation, charge or suggestion of any impropriety on their part, but I’m open to listen."

Several watchdog groups said the issue had once again illustrated the problems that arise from marriages between Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists. Such unions are legion in Washington. They said the report also underscored the need to change the rules for earmarks, which have been used by lawmakers to reward lobbyists.