- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

Four political watchdog groups that typically support Democratic causes want a congressional ethics panel to probe ties between three House Democrats and the defunct Washington lobbying firm, the PMA Group, which benefited from the lawmakers’ help.

In a letter Thursday to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the groups Common Cause, Public Citizen, Democracy 21 and U.S. PIRG asked for the panel to investigate whether Reps. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana and James P. Moran of Virginia were influenced by campaign contributions and other financial benefits when they approved special pet projects, or earmarks, for clients of the PMA Group, in violation of House ethics rules.

Republicans had been asking for a formal investigation into the relationships between the Democratic lawmakers and PMA for some time. But with high-profile Democratic allies such as Common Cause now joining the fray, the pressure will mount on committee Chairman Zoe Lofgren and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrats, to act.

While the four groups said they have not taken a position as to whether House ethics rules were broken in the PMA matter, they explained that several published reports on the issue “have raised serious ethics questions about House members and that these questions require an investigation.”

“We further believe that such an investigation is in the best interests of the House as an institution, the Representatives publicly involved in this matter and the American people,” the letter states.

The three Democrats have received huge amounts of political donations from lobbyists and clients of PMA, a former defense lobbying firm whose Virginia office was raided by the FBI in November.

PMA was founded by former Murtha aide Paul Magliocchetti and specialized in winning earmarked taxpayer funds for its defense industry clients.

Federal investigators are looking into whether Mr. Magliocchetti used “straw” campaign contributors to funnel illegal donations to friendly lawmakers, according to published reports.

Mr. Murtha 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. Mr. Visclosky collected $1.36 million; Mr. Moran, $997,348.

The three lawmakers in 2007 and 2008 directed $137 million to defense contractors who were paying Mr. Magliocchetti’s PMA Group to get them government business.

Telephone calls and e-mails placed Friday to the offices of Mr. Murtha, Mr. Visclosky and Mr. Moran were unreturned.

Staff director and chief counsel of the House ethics committee Blake Chisam, whose first day on the job was Friday, declined to comment on the letter, citing House rules.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, has offered seven privileged resolutions in the House calling on the ethics committee to examine the relationship between earmarks for PMA clients and PMA-related campaign contributions.

“The letter is another sign that this issue isn’t going away,” Flake spokesman Matthew Specht said. “Congress needs to decouple the relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions.”

The ethics committee makes public disclosures of an investigation only if it votes to create a subcommittee to investigate a lawmaker. One of the committee’s most recent probes to go public is an ongoing investigation into the personal finances of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.