Washington Babylon — August 20, 2008, 12:52 pm

The Murtha Rules: A simple system to win federal money

Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania has long been one of the biggest porkbarrelers in Congress, and as the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee he is also one of the biggest recipients of lobbyists’ campaign donations. Which is no coincidence.

When the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged that porkbarreling would be severely curtailed. But that hasn’t come to pass–no surprise given that old-time hacks like Murtha hold such powerful positions on the Appropriations committees.

Murtha basically runs a racket. He helps win taxpayer money for companies that support his campaigns and hire lobbyists he approves of–often his former staffers and in at least one case blood kin. Companies that set up shop in his district do better yet, even if they only set up a smaller satellite office, thereby allowing Murtha to pose as a champion of his constituents as opposed to his political cronies. “There’s been no report of Mr. Murtha’s profiting personally,” the New York Times has written. “But the Murtha operation–which has become a model for other entrepreneurial lawmakers–is a gross example of quid pro quo Washington.”

Murtha’s porkbarreling has been covered extensively here in the past. Consider now another instance of the Murtha rules: the case of Argon ST and its subsidiary, Coherent Systems International.

Part I: The Companies

Argon, a large defense contractor, is designed as an earmark receptacle. Its office locations read like a roll call of the House Appropriations Committee. The company is headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia (the district of Jim Moran, who once pledged to “earmark the shit” out of an appropriations bill and has always worked hard to live up to that high standard), and has offices in: Pennsylvania (Murtha’s district); California (Jerry Lewis’ district); and Florida (Bill Young’s district). It also has major operations in the district of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

In 2007, Argon acquired Coherent Systems, which is located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, an area represented by Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy. (“Congressman Murtha has long been a hero of mine,” Murphy said in 2006.) Coherent has offices in Murtha’s district and has six business partners, three of which are located in Murtha’s district and have close ties to the congressman: Kuchera Defense Systems; the Greater Johnstown Cambria County Chamber of Commerce; and the Johnstown Area Regional Industries (JARI), a non-profit business incubator.

Part II: The lobbyists

Argon’s in-house lobbying operation is headed by Gabrielle Carruth, a former Senior Advisor and Appropriations Director for Murtha. The firm has also employed PMA, which was founded in 1989 by Paul Magliocchetti, who once worked for Murtha at the Appropriations Committee, as did PMA employee Julie Giardina. Another PMA lobbyist, Daniel Cunningham, is a golfing buddy of Murtha’s.

KSA, another Argon lobbyist, has had on its staff not only Carmen Scialabba, a long-time senior aide to Murtha, but Robert “Kit” Murtha, the congressman’s brother. Yet another lobbying firm that has worked for Argon is Ervin Technological Associates, whose clients include Kuchera and Lockheed Martin. Officials for the firm include ex-Congressman Joseph McDade (who was acquitted on bribery charges in 1996), and its president, Jim Ervin, who has been described in The Hill as a “powerful force in the defense lobbying world.”

Part III: Money in

Since 2003, Argon employees and the company PAC have donated at least $60,800 to Murtha’s campaigns and Leadership PAC, while Coherent has added $17,800. Coherent’s partners have tossed in even bigger amounts, with Kuchera contributing $74,500 since 2002 and JARI board members and their families giving $79,600 since the mid-1990s. Lobbyists for the companies have also contributed heavily to Murtha. PMA, the congressman’s sixth biggest all-time donor, has subsidized his career to the tune of $112,100.

Part IV: Money out

That’s a lot of campaign money, but the firms have received far more than that in federal contracts and earmarks. Argon and Coherent received a combined $8 million in earmarks in the last defense bill, and the two together have won more than $300 million in federal contracts since 2000.

Meanwhile, Kuchera won $8.2 million in earmarks last time around, and has received nearly $40 million in government contracts since 2000. The bulk of that money has gone to Murtha’s district.

Congress has yet to pass a defense bill for next year but when it gets around to doing that, look for money for Argon, Coherent and Kuchera to be included. With the Murtha rules in effect, that’s all but guaranteed.

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