- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2014

EXCLUSIVE:

When his past in a Pennsylvania corruption case surfaced recently, Homeland Security chief of staff Christian Marrone’s defenders insisted he was a victim of a crooked politician who took advantage of his inexperience as a young legislative aide. Some even suggested that Mr. Marrone was a whistleblower for helping prosecutors convict his former boss.

But emails and documents obtained by The Washington Times from court files show Mr. Marrone initiated some of the very activities that captured prosecutors’ interest and led to the downfall of his former boss, state Sen. Vincent Fumo. Some of those activities even personally benefited Mr. Marrone in the process.

For instance, Mr. Marrone accepted $4,000 from a publicly funded nonprofit run by Fumo to pay the cost of his bar review course. The money from the tax-exempt charity was supposed to help revive blighted urban neighborhoods.

While collecting a taxpayer salary, Mr. Marrone also gave Fumo a suggestion to disguise the true source of a proposed political donation from a developer and conceived a plan to spy on Edward G. Rendell to find dirt that could undercut the Philadelphia mayor’s campaign for governor.

“I’d like to snoop around and see if we can dig up some info,” Mr. Marrone wrote in one 2001 email in which he proposed hiring a private investigator to spy on renovations at one of Mr. Rendell’s homes to determine whether he was using nonunion workers. He later asked Fumo for permission to turn over the private eye’s findings to Mr. Rendell’s political rival.

‘Willing participant’

Such activities, gleaned from exhibits in the 2008-09 court case that sent Fumo to prison for 55 months on corruption charges, contrast with Mr. Marrone’s portrayal that he was a unwitting “victim of Vince” who simply carried out orders without knowing what he was doing was wrong, a government watchdog told The Times.

“These emails pretty clearly show he was a willing participant,” said Craig Holman, legislative director at the watchdog group Public Citizen.

He also pointed out that prosecutors nonetheless concluded that Mr. Marrone shouldn’t be charged with crimes.

“There may not be anything illegal about using a private investigator to spy on a political figure, but it smacks of Nixonian-style dirty politics.”

The emails also raise fresh questions about the security background check that cleared Mr. Marrone for his current job. This month, he began overseeing a department with billions of dollars in grant money and access to some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets, security analysts said.

The contrast between Mr. Marrone’s claims and the emails in the corruption case should have raised a red flag when the U.S. government vetted him for a security clearance years later, said Mark Riley, a Maryland lawyer who represents people who have been denied clearances or had them revoked.

“If you’ve been in business with criminals, if you’ve accepted favors from them, that should give any security clearance investigator great concern,” Mr. Riley said. “Pleading ignorance is no excuse — if he walks like a duck, acts like a duck, he’s probably a duck. Investigators should’ve uncovered that.”

The quality of Mr. Marrone’s background check also concerns Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican whose House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security has begun demanding answers from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on why he appointed Mr. Marrone to such a sensitive position.

Mr. Chaffetz began his review after an article in The Times revealed Mr. Marrone’s connections to the Fumo criminal case.

Last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, joined Mr. Chaffetz in sending a letter to Homeland Security demanding to know how Mr. Marrone made it through the clearance process and pressing the Obama administration to send Congress his background check records.

“Given the Department’s vital mission to keep our nation secure, it is absolutely essential that appointees to senior positions receive a thorough vetting,” the three Republican lawmakers wrote. “In this instance, it appears that the Department was either unaware or willfully disregarded 2008 testimony revealing ethical questions about Mr. Marrone’s prior conduct.”

‘A lot of rubber-stamping’

Although Mr. Marrone was never charged with wrongdoing, there is reason for concern about the whole vetting process, analysts say. Mr. Marrone obtained his clearance during the Bush administration before his 2008 testimony at the Fumo trial, but he should have been vetted again under the Obama administration, they said.

“There’s supposed to be a security clearance renewal process every five years, but from my understanding, there’s a lot of rubber-stamping that goes on,” said Shlomo Katz, a Washington-based lawyer at Brown Rudnick LLP, who has studied and has undergone the process. “When a person changes jobs, or new details emerge regarding their history, they should be revetted.”

Homeland Security officials referred questions about Mr. Marrone’s most recent background check to the Pentagon, where he started working for the federal government in 2004.

Asked how Mr. Marrone obtained his security clearance, Defense Department officials declined to answer the question directly.

Mr. Marrone’s time at the Department was marked by exemplary performance of duty in the service of our country,” Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman, said in an email. “I encourage you to reach out to his former boss, Secretary [Robert M.] Gates, if you need more information.”

Attempts to reach Mr. Gates, who was Mr. Marrone’s supervisor at the department, were unacknowledged. In a recently released book, Mr. Gates praised Mr. Marrone, one of a handful of Pentagon political appointees who served in both the Bush and the Obama administrations.

Pressed about Mr. Marrone’s vetting, Homeland Security declined to comment. Instead, the department issued a statement about how Mr. Marrone has gained trust within Washington circles.

“None of this information is new as it was part of a publicly accessible and widely covered federal trial many years ago, in which Mr. Marrone helped put a corrupt individual behind bars,” Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard wrote in an email. “He has the confidence of two Secretaries from two Administrations of both parties.”

At Fumo’s trial in 2008, Mr. Marrone’s security clearance surfaced as a topic during cross-examination. Mr. Marrone testified that he disclosed his work for Fumo as part of his clearance process.

Defense attorneys filed a subpoena for Mr. Marrone’s personnel records at the Pentagon, but a judge rejected the move after the government objected, arguing that his post-Fumo career wasn’t relevant to the trial.

“There is nothing in Mr. Marrone’s DOD personnel file that is in any way embarrassing or which is reflective of any bad acts,” prosecutors argued in a memo.

Suggested tricks

A little more than a dozen years ago, Mr. Marrone was a college graduate working toward a law degree. He showed ambition and initiative, evidence introduced into court shows.

For instance, while on government time in 2001, he asked Fumo for permission to use a private investigator — whom Fumo used on other assignments — after an article mentioned renovations at a vacation house owned by Mr. Rendell, who at the time was running for governor against Fumo-backed challenger Bob Casey.

“I haven’t been able to find the article, but I’d like to snoop around and see if we can dig up some info like are the contractors being used union etc,” Mr. Marrone wrote, before asking to use the private investigator.

When the investigator determined that the contractors weren’t union, Mr. Marrone asked, “Do you want me to give it to the Casey campaign or do you want me to do something with it?”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the spying activities in 2007 but did not identify Mr. Marrone by name and referred to him as an aide.

That same year, email records show, Mr. Marrone approached Fumo about a lunch he had with an employee at a development company whose owner, he said, wanted to route campaign money to the Casey campaign through Fumo.

Fumo had his own campaign fund and controlled another political action committee war chest, but it’s illegal to donate funds in another person’s name.

“Any way they would like donate somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 or more to the Casey Campaign and would like do through you,” Mr. Marrone wrote, adding that the developer wanted to “come in and meet with you and make the offer.”

“Are you interested?” Mr. Marrone asked his boss.

Neither the court nor campaign finance filings give any indication about such a campaign contribution, but Public Citizen’s Mr. Holman said it’s troubling that Mr. Marrone would even suggest the idea.

“It clearly runs afoul of money laundering, and it defies any stretch of the imagination to think that either Mr. Marrone or Fumo did not know this would have been illegal,” Mr. Holman said.

“The mere fact Mr. Marrone is participating in arranging a money-laundering scheme really shows where he was coming from, even if it did not take place.”

Promotion sought

Testifying against his former boss in 2008, Mr. Marrone highlighted to the court an email he wrote telling Fumo that he didn’t feel comfortable with the bad press their nonprofit Citizens Alliance was getting and recommended that someone be hired to manage the charity.

Mr. Marrone tried to use the email to help distinguish himself with the jury as a moral character. He said the response from Fumo was troubling.

“Yes, that would be nice but then it would cost us a lot more and CONFIDENTIALLY (only because I trust you) if we had such a person and tried to do some of the things that are political that we do, we would now have someone else ‘in our tent’ and we would be subject to his blackmail if they so chose to do it,” Fumo replied in an email to Mr. Marrone’s recommendations.

Although Mr. Marrone said he was concerned by the response, he was not troubled enough to avoid asking for a promotion just four months later, the emails reviewed by The Times show.

“I would also gladly except more of leadership role in the office if truly allowed to do so,” Mr. Marrone wrote in January 2001 as part of an office review. “My education and proven ability to get things done right could be utilized in a more effective and valuable manner to the Senator and the office.”

In 2002, Mr. Marrone also had no qualms about taking money from the nonprofit to use for his educational purposes. Mr. Marrone asked Fumo to help pay for his bar review course. Fumo agreed and paid him $8,000 from the nonprofit, which Mr. Marrone split with another aide also preparing to take the bar exam.

Mr. Marrone testified that he believed he paid taxes on the extra income, but he did not address the issue of taking money for his personal benefit from the nonprofit’s primary mission of helping blighted urban neighborhoods.

Just a ‘name only’ post

During his years as a legislative aide, Mr. Marrone agreed to become an officer at Hi Tech Ventures, a for-profit subsidiary under the umbrella of the Fumo-founded Citizens Alliance. The nonprofit became a conduit for public grant dollars to go directly to a project with which Hi Tech Ventures became involved.

While Mr. Marrone served at Hi Tech, the company received property in a development deal that was purchased using grant money routed through Fumo’s nonprofit, according to records. In 2006, after Mr. Marrone had left Fumo’s employment, Hi-Tech sold the property for a $2.8 million profit.

The city’s office of inspector general concluded in a report years later that the grant funds awarded in 1999 and 2001 were used instead for profit-generating purposes and demanded the return of the grant money.

Mr. Marrone testified that it was Fumo’s decision to have him as an officer at Hi Tech.

“All of the approvals still came from the senator, so my being named president was just being name only,” Mr. Marrone said in court.

Mr. Marrone testified that Hi Tech officials did not remove his name from paperwork after he resigned in 2002.

Such activities should figure into any federal background investigation, said Mr. Riley, the Maryland lawyer who specializes in clearance cases.

Under Defense Department rules, individuals with national security clearances are supposed to self-report whether they have been charged in any criminal matter or circumstances involving “acts of omission or commission that indicate poor judgment.”