Defense contractors who openly discussed a suspected pay-to-play scheme in e-mails released by congressional ethics investigators had ties to a powerful lobbying firm and won millions of dollars in federal earmarks after contributing to the campaign of an Indiana congressman.
Democratic Rep. Peter J. Visclosky requested a $2.5 million federal earmark for Nevada-based defense contractor Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) five days after a March 2007 fundraiser for which the company’s owners and its political action committee contributed $18,800 to the congressman’s campaign.
Similarly, Mr. Visclosky requested $2.5 million for defense firm 21st Century Systems — five days after its employees ponied up $17,050 for the same fundraiser. The firm’s chief executive was awarded an “honorary seat” next to Mr. Visclosky at that fundraiser.
In both cases, company executives wrote e-mails linking campaign donations to earmarks Mr. Visclosky secured or special access to the congressman, a congressional ethics board concluded.
At the time, SNC and 21st Century, along with other defense contractors, had secured the services of the then-high-flying Washington area lobbying firm, the PMA Group — now the target of a federal grand jury investigation.
Government watchdog groups have long questioned the ties between PMA and its three key allies on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee — Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, who died in February; Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat; and Mr. Visclosky.
All three members of the powerful subcommittee that doles out millions of dollars annually in Pentagon appropriations received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from PMA employees and the firm’s clients who wanted earmarks — often within mere days of each other.
PMA, which earned more than $16.4 million in 2007 specializing in defense earmarks for clients, was one of the 10 top-grossing lobbying firms in Washington before it imploded. Federal agents raided it and owner Paul Magliocchetti’s home in November 2008.
Late last year, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) accused Mr. Visclosky of soliciting PMA clients for campaign donations in 2008 and then giving them special access to him and his staff one week before authoring their defense earmarks.
The eight-member OCE Board of Directors referred the findings on Mr. Visclosky to the House ethics committee, saying they found “probable cause” to believe he solicited or received contributions in exchange for earmarks.
The OCE, which does not have jurisdiction over events prior to March 2008, included in its report the SNC e-mails from 2007 as “evidence that PMA clients seeking earmarks from Representative Visclosky linked contributions to his campaign to specific legislative acts.”
But in February, the ethics committee cleared Mr. Visclosky, Mr. Murtha, Mr. Moran and four other members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, saying it “found no evidence” they or their staffs were “directly or indirectly engaged in seeking contributions in return for earmarks.”
The committee was critical of PMA, however, saying its lobbyists “pushed or directed” company executives to maximize their donations and “to attend specific fundraisers while pursuing earmarks.”
In a strong rebuke to the ethics committee, the OCE board last month unanimously referred to the Justice Department what it described as “evidence collected in the course of its investigation,” saying it showed that some PMA clients thought there was a connection between making campaign donations and getting earmarks.
The board cited e-mails from SNC as an example in their Visclosky report.