Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Powerful Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania has long treated defense contractors as if they are a part of a large dysfunctional family he controls. We are less than surprised he is patriarch of a clan that appears to survive by feeding on the government teat.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that in 2008, nearly $4 million in no-bid Pentagon logistics contracts went to a Glen Burnie, Md., business owned by Robert C. Murtha Jr., nephew of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairman. The nephew said he does not advertise his relationship to his uncle and the Pentagon. The Pentagon reportedly says Mr. Murtha did not apply pressure or have any say in hiring his nephew’s not-so-slyly named firm, Murtech Inc. We suspect he doesn’t have to.

Mr. Murtha’s storied record of directing Pentagon spending to his district and key supporters, many of whom he counts as campaign donors, underlines his reputation as a top defense-spending player on Capitol Hill. He has long claimed credit for using his Appropriations subcommittee seat to steer hundreds of millions in defense dollars to Pennsylvania firms. The Johnstown district airport that bears his name has benefited from $30 million in Pentagon-funded improvements.

The family connections to the defense spending Mr. Murtha oversees do not stop with Murtech. The New York Times reported last week that another nephew, Col. Brian Murtha, joined the Marine Corps’ legislative liaison office last July. He was previously a helicopter pilot. Robert C. “Kit” Murtha, the lawmaker’s younger brother and father of Murtech’s owner, was a longtime defense appropriations lobbyist. Mr. Murtha has reportedly directed millions in earmarks to clients of KSA Consulting Inc., where Kit Murtha was once a lobbyist. He also reportedly earmarked millions in federal funding to St. Vincent College when his cousin, the Rev. John F. Murtha, was its president. The family name carries a lot of weight.

The chairman’s spokesman would not comment on the reports. However, Mr. Murtha is not alone among members of the House Appropriations Committee from both parties who have family members lobbying in their domain. Nevertheless, questionable connections should be enough to change the behavior of many lawmakers. But not Mr. Murtha, who is known to brag about his abilities to get funding directed to wherever he sees fit.

There is no evidence that we have seen of Murtech benefiting from earmarks. But it was awarded part of a defense contract in September, along with ICX Technologies, a client of the PMA Group. PMA is under federal investigation for its campaign donations and ties to Mr. Murtha and other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Mr. Murtha also holds yearly Pennsylvania “job fairs” attended by defense interests and continues to legally collect tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from them, including former PMA clients. While none of this appears to violate any law or House ethics guidelines, it certainly displays how power has helped Mr. Murtha’s and his friends.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, is on to something with his effort to gain House approval for a House Ethics Committee investigation into the relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions. However, the Ethics Committee is a legendarily toothless apparatus for attacking corruption in the House. The 3-to-3 split among parties seems designed to ensure that fact.

Too often power means favors and favorable treatment, whether asked for or not. As the party in charge, House Democrats should reform House rules to ensure anyone in a leadership position must step down if indicted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must not wait for federal prosecutors to tell her of the staggering problems of which she surely must be aware.

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