So powerful was Representative John P. Murtha at one time that he used to put up billboards in his Western Pennsylvania district declaring that “the P is for Power.” Few in Congress dared disagree: he doled out or withheld billions in federal money each year for lawmakers’ pet projects, better known as earmarks.He's still very powerful, of course; any subcommittee chairman in Appropriations holds a lot of power. But all those scandals are beginning to pile up and they all follow the same pattern.
Now, however, a string of federal criminal investigations of contractors or lobbyists close to Mr. Murtha, the top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, are threatening to undermine his backroom clout.
In the weeks since the news that prosecutors had raided the offices of the PMA Group — a lobbying firm founded by a former Murtha associate that became a gateway to his office and his biggest source of campaign money — about two dozen rank-and-file Democrats have risked his wrath by calling for a House ethics investigation of the matter. One Democrat has even foresworn seeking earmarks for the military contractors in his district because of ethical concerns about the process.
In a private meeting with the chairman of the House appropriations committee, Mr. Murtha, the unofficial leader of the “old bulls” who oversee the subcommittees, was forced to accept a series of new restrictions on his authority to grant earmarks, Democratic aides briefed on the meeting said. In previous weeks he had already acquiesced to another steep cut in the volume of earmarks he dispenses, down by half this year from a few years ago. He had also submitted to new disclosure requirements, including public hearings, that cramp his ability to cut last-minute deals.
Now Mr. Murtha also agreed to accept a new rule requiring competitive bidding on earmarked contracts. Furthermore, one of his usual lieutenants — Representative Peter J. Visclosky, Democrat of Indiana and member of the defense subcommittee who is chairman of the energy and water panel — unexpectedly switched sides to back the new restrictions, perhaps because he too is under new scrutiny for his ties to the PMA Group.
Mr. Murtha has continued his spring tradition of summoning military lobbyists to a big-ticket fund-raising breakfast just as he begins to oversee the year’s military spending bill. And he has vowed to continue steering military contracts to his constituents. “If I am corrupt,” he recently told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it is because I take care of my district.”The eye-opening thing is that this is all legal as long as nothing explicit was said between all these experienced Washington hands to indicate that what was going on was really a quid pro quo. Winks and nods are accepted, however.
Other Democrats winced at his words. Reports of the PMA investigation coincided with the news that federal agents had also raided Kuchera Industries, a Johnstown, Pa., company built on Mr. Murtha’s patronage whose owners held a fund-raiser for him on their private game ranch. The Justice Department is also investigating the Concurrent Technologies Corporation, a nonprofit government contractor based in Johnstown that was founded by Mr. Murtha, nurtured by his earmarks and represented by PMA lobbyists....
This week, Fred Wertheimer, a veteran advocate for stricter ethics rules, and others are expected to formally ask the ethics committee to investigate Mr. Murtha, a handful of other lawmakers close to him, and the possibility that they traded earmarks for contributions and other benefits from the PMA Group.
Meanwhile, shortly after the PMA investigation become public, more than 100 lobbyists and contractors lined up in late February to shake Mr. Murtha’s hand in the receiving line at his annual breakfast fund-raiser at the Army-Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va. Many lobbyists say they consider it obligatory. (Susan O’Neill, Mr. Murtha’s chief fund-raiser, rounded up lobbyists last year with an e-mail message that all but suggested the chairman would take attendance. “I wanted to be sure that you are attending,” she wrote, adding, “I am enclosing the invitation in case you did not receive it,” and, “My office will call to confirm receipt if we do not hear back from you.”)
About 25 companies received more than $100 million in Mr. Murtha’s earmarks in the current military bill while their executives contributed more than $350,000 to his campaign.