Wednesday, September 5, 2007

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The largess of Rep. John P. Murtha — hundreds of millions of dollars in pork projects over the years — is on display in and around his district in southwestern Pennsylvania.

From the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport to the stretch of U.S. 219 named Jack P. Murtha Highway, the Pennsylvania Democrat leaves his mark with federal taxpayer dollars.

The money helped build the stunted economy in and around Mr. Murtha’s hometown of Johnstown, a Rust Belt community about 65 miles east of Pittsburgh, by cultivating a defense-contracting industry, transplanting federal jobs there and subsidizing public-works projects.

“He is a key political leader, and he’s been in a position to help in a lot of areas,” said Robert F. Layo, president of the Greater Johnstown Chamber of Commerce, who credits Mr. Murtha with helping save the town after the steel mills closed.

“You just can’t deny that.”

Critics say Mr. Murtha, 75, is squandering taxpayer money, giving away federal dollars to handpicked businesses and projects without competitive bids or independent oversight.

“Murtha is a poster child for what is wrong with Congress,” said Leslie K. Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a group targeting mismanagement in Washington. “There are shenanigans going on behind the scenes, and it leads to corruption.”

The budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says Mr. Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, slipped at least $163.8 million in earmarks into 2008 spending bills.

Mr. Murtha, known for brokering backroom earmark deals, insists that it is Congress’ job to appropriate funds and that members know what is best for their districts.

“We go over every single earmark,” he said on the House floor before the August recess. “We don’t apologize for them because we think the members know as much about what goes on in their district as the bureaucrats.”

House ethics rules adopted in January to shed light on the secretive earmark process did not curb Mr. Murtha’s appetite for pork.

His share of earmarks more than doubled from $80 million in the 2007 budget and topped $121 million from 2006, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“It’s less about him supporting his community than him supporting businesses and lobbyists that are giving him campaign contributions,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

In the 2008 appropriation bills, Mr. Murtha replaced the administration’s request for $16 million to shut down the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) in Johnstown with $39 million to keep it running another year and keep scores of federal jobs in that remote town.

“We’re a political football,” said an NDIC official in Johnstown who did not want to be identified while discussing the center’s status.

Mr. Murtha touts the center’s accomplishments in compiling data on illegal drugs and related crimes, though the administration says the work is redundant and could be conducted at other offices of the Justice Department, which runs the center.

He also funneled $1.5 million to Concurrent Technologies Corp. (CTC), a Johnstown-based research center, the top executives of which have given tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Mr. Murtha, according to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said the firm is “recognized throughout the Defense Department and industry as having quality work and research, done at a competitive price, while delivering on-time results.”

He declined to address the political contributions.

CTC spokeswoman Mary T. Bevan said the company does not make political contributions, but employees can. “We don’t keep a tally of what our employees contribute,” she said.

FEC records show that since 2002, Mr. Murtha’s campaigns have gotten $11,500 from CTC President Daniel R. DeVos and his wife, Patricia; $8,500 from CTC executives Edgar Berkley and Jerry Hudson; and $3,750 from CTC General Manager and Treasurer Margaret A. DiVirgilio.

Mr. Murtha doled out $300,000 for renovations at a county-run public swimming pool and ice rink called the Belmont Complex in Kittanning.

Mr. Mazonkey justified the expenditure by noting that the recreation center was the only multiuse facility in Armstrong County.

“It provides the county with conference facilities, organizational meeting space and recreational activities,” he said. “A fire made extensive damages to the facility, and this funding is urgently needed to make interior and exterior renovations and to make the facility handicap accessible.”

Gary Montebell, director of the Belmont Complex, told The Washington Times that property damage from a building fire that occurred a couple of years ago had been fixed. “That building was replaced,” he said.

Despite being dubbed “king corruption” by his Capitol Hill detractors and weathering fresh scrutiny since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, pledged to conduct the “most ethical Congress in history,” Mr. Murtha remains beloved by voters in his district.

They elected him 18 times, the last time with 61 percent of the vote.

Johnstown resident Rita King, 60, a retired elementary school teacher who volunteers on Mr. Murtha’s campaigns, said her trust in Mr. Murtha wasn’t shaken even when he got caught up — but not prosecuted — in the FBI’s Abscam corruption stings in 1980.

“They tried to nail him on that, but I inherently believe he is out for what is best for the county,” Ms. King said.

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