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EXCLUSIVE: Pick for Army chief pushed defense earmarks

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

EXCLUSIVE:

Before he was named by President Obama to be the next Army secretary, Rep. John M. McHugh of New York had asked Congress to set aside tens of millions of dollars in next year's budget for defense contractors that now could fall under his command as the Army's civilian leader.

Mr. McHugh, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, requested that more than $40 million in "earmarks" be inserted into a 2010 defense appropriations bill, including more than $8 million benefiting an Army base in his home state, according to records.

His wish list also included $4.7 million for Lockheed Martin, one of the Army's largest contractors, whose products range from tactical missiles to battlefield combat systems. Lockheed's employees and political action committee have been sources of political cash for Mr. McHugh, accounting for $35,000 in campaign donations over the years, according the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Criticized by some as pork-barrel spending, earmarks are the special spending provisions that members of Congress slip into spending bills to direct money to pet projects.

A spokeswoman said Mr. McHugh won't be involved in any contracting decisions as Army secretary if his nomination is confirmed and that he never let campaign contributions affect his decisions as a congressman.

"The Army procurement process is appropriately made independently, and those firms receiving contracts are chosen outside of the direct authority of the secretary of the Army," McHugh spokeswoman Stephanie Valle said. "If confirmed as secretary, Congressman McHugh would exercise no direct role in that process."

Mr. McHugh also requested $2 million for Rockwell Collins Inc., an Iowa-based defense contractor with a facility in upstate New York. Until earlier this year, the company was a client of the troubled PMA Group lobbying firm, which closed recently after reports that the FBI had raided the firm amid an investigation into suspected campaign-finance violations. Neither the firm nor its employees have been charged with any wrongdoing.

Mr. McHugh's office and Rockwell Collins say PMA played no role in securing the congressman's help on the $2 million Rockwell Collins earmark request. Nonetheless, Mr. McHugh's office has reviewed all of the PMA-related donations and is prepared to answer questions about them if they are raised during confirmation hearings.

"The congressman has never let a contribution influence any vote or action as an elected official, and he stands ready to respond to any questions the Senate may put before him," Ms. Valle said.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, PMA's political action committee, its employees and its clients gave $160,250 to Mr. McHugh's congressional campaigns over the years, ranking him in the top 15 percent of recipients in Congress of PMA funds, though still far short of the estimated $2.4 million donated to Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, and $1.4 million to Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, Indiana Democrat.

While the campaigns of Mr. Visclosky and a few other federal lawmakers have begun getting rid of PMA donations, Mr. McHugh has no immediate plans to do so, according to his office.

Ms. Valle said an outside accountant reviewed the donations "and, to the best of our knowledge, the contributions were fully legal."

"The money has been sequestered," she said, "and if circumstances change, the congressman fully intends to dispose of the money in an appropriate manner."

Other defense projects proposed by Mr. McHugh include $5 million for Syracuse Research Corp. for surveillance technology, $2 million to Legend Technologies for a "remote sighting system" and $8 million to a joint project by the Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego. He also has asked for funding for an $8.2 military construction project at the Fort Drum Army Base in upstate New York.

In addition to the defense-related earmarks, Mr. McHugh is asking for more than $70 million in 2010 for what his office calls "domestic" spending requests. The requests range from $150,000 to renovate the American Maple Museum to tens of millions of dollars for nonprofit groups such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the national Reading Is Fundamental program.

But given his nomination as Army secretary, it's Mr. McHugh's defense requests that are catching the attention of watchdog organizations.

"On one hand, it's not surprising the defense industry would donate to a senior member of the Armed Services Committee," said Steve Ellis, a spokesman for the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. "At the same time, he did intervene on behalf of a client of the discredited and federally investigated PMA Group. I'm not saying it's disqualifying, but it's definitely something that should be examined."

Ms. Valle said the congressman gave no special favors to Rockwell Collins.

"There was no possibility of influence on the Rockwell Collins request because PMA was defunct before the request was submitted," she said. "Additionally, at no time did this office have any contact with any representative of PMA on this request."

She called the earmark request part of "an ongoing program that directly benefits" the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum.

"The request was reviewed with Fort Drum, and they validated the need," she said.

Pam Tvrdy, a spokeswoman for Rockwell Collins, said PMA provided only "limited work" to the defense contractor, which she said did not involve the $2 million avionics earmark.

"We do not work with that firm anymore," she said.

Despite more than $100 million in funding requests - typically made individually or by joining requests with other lawmakers - Mr. McHugh hasn't been considered a prolific earmark requester over the years.

Mr. McHugh secured $18.6 million overall in earmarks in 2008, ranking him 243rd in the Congress, according to a review of earmark practices by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Still, Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste, said all members - including Mr. McHugh - should be questioned about any earmarks they directed to PMA clients.

"The entire PMA client roster needs to be examined," she said. "Someone should ask these questions of him. Given the questions about PMA, he should be prepared to answer whether he's ever accepted campaign contributions for an earmark."