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[Washington Babylon]

More on $1 Billion Murtha-Connected Biodefense Facility


A few weeks ago, I reported here on a plan by Congressman John Murtha’s friends and campaign donors to obtain up to $1 billion for a controversial project to build a biodefense manufacturing facility. The players included:

Lobby shop Ervin Technical Associates (ETA), founded by Jim Ervin, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who the Wall Street Journal describes as a “longtime friend” of Murtha.

Private equity firm Four Seasons Ventures, which Ervin also helped found and which “primarily invests in technologies… that will garner United States government support.” Four Seasons invests in at least two firms that have received federal earmarks with Murtha’s help, including PharmaThene, a biodefense firm–which also retains ETA as its lobbyist.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which also retains ETA and which is a major donor to Murtha.

These three outfits have been seeking funding for a manufacturing plant that would produce biodefense products, even though the grounds for such a facility (as explained in the original story) are highly dubious. The players have been putting the project together since at least 2005, and UPMC conducted a $3 million “conceptual study” funded by the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

None of the three were terribly forthcoming about the project, but DARPA has now sent my colleague Sam Fellman answers to some questions we asked about a month ago. The agency’s replies, from spokeswoman Jan Walker, shed light on Murtha’s role in the project, and how his friends and sponsors have benefited thus far. Here are a few highlights from the email exchange we had with DARPA:

Q. Did Congressman Murtha – or any other Member of Congress – contact DARPA on UPMC’s behalf for this project?

A. Rep. Murtha is the Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds DARPA and either he or his staff might bring DARPA’s attention to proposed projects. Rep. Murtha did meet with DARPA’s Director in October 2007 to discuss the on-going study and the general issue of quickly manufacturing large quantities of bioweapon countermeasures. Rep. Murtha also held a hearing on that issue in April 2008 at which DARPA testified.

Q. Did Four Seasons receive any portion of the funding [from the $3 million study]?

A. DARPA’s cooperative agreement was with UPMC, but Four Seasons Ventures (FSV) was their largest subcontractor.

Q. Where was the work for this project conducted by UPMC?

A. Four Seasons Ventures’ facilities in Washington DC…served as the primary location for the study.

Q. This year, UPMC has been holding briefings for stakeholders, which have been sponsored by DARPA. When did DARPA’s involvement end?

A. As per DARPA’s cooperative agreement, UPMC conducted a study and delivered a report to DARPA documenting the study findings. The report provided a comprehensive view of the biodefense manufacturing capacity that would be necessary to meet a variety of Federal Government (DoD and civilian) needs. In addition, DARPA also funded UPMC to educate industry and government regarding the results of the study and engage them in discussions of a possible public-private partnership for biodefense manufacturing. The effort under the cooperative agreement ends March 31, 2009. There has been no additional funding provided since 2008.

Q. Will DARPA be issuing a report on the project, and if so when?

A. At this time, the UPMC report is only available to government agencies. DARPA has no plans to make it more widely available.

In other words, Murtha has been supporting a highly questionable project that has benefited an interlocking network of his political funders and friends in private industry.

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