The Washington Post reported over the weekend on the ongoing federal investigation into defense earmarks, saying that it was “increasingly focused on a former top aide to Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) who worked with the congressman on funding requests from clients of a powerful lobbying firm, according to two sources familiar with the probe.” The story said that the aide, Charles E. Brimmer, Visclosky’s former longtime chief of staff, may have “suggested to some lobbyists that companies seeking Visclosky’s help in getting Pentagon funds would need to commit to a program of donations to the member of the Appropriations defense subcommittee. The Justice Department is trying to determine whether Brimmer’s proposal constituted quid pro quo, an illegal act in which a public official requests something of value in exchange for an official action.”
I’ve reported extensively on Visclosky over the past few years, as well as on Congressman John Murtha, who investigators are also scrutinizing. A lobbyist I spoke to offered interesting insights into how those two congressional pork kings operate, and specifically confirmed that Visclosky’s office made an obvious connection between donations and earmark requests. The lobbyist said that both Brimmer and Rich Kaelin, former appropriations committee assistant, legislative director, and chief of staff to Visclosky who went on to work at a powerful firm called PMA, “were very clear that the more money you raised, the more [earmarks] you’d get.” He added:
Visclosky would hold small fundraising dinners when a bill was moving through congress, and lobbyists would arrange those dinners. It was pretty obvious that people who went got more funding in the bill than people who didn’t. They’d have two small tables and Visclosky would sit at one and [a top appropriations staffer] would sit at the other, and halfway through they’d switch tables so you got face time with both. Murtha operated the same way. I’d get calls from Susan O’Neill [Murtha’s chief fundraiser] and she’d say, “You committed to $50,000 and you only came up with $20,000. When can we expect the rest?” I’m not sure that’s illegal but it sure is uncomfortable.
I also found an interesting connection between Murtha and the National First Ladies’ Library in Canton, Ohio. The library has obtained vast amounts of pork over the years, with former GOP congressman Ralph Regula generally being pointed to at the leading sponsor. “[Regula’s] wife founded the museum and [his] daughter runs it,” said a story from 2007. “Regula has requested hundreds of thousands of federal dollars for the museum since 1991, when he persuaded the National Park Service to pay $1.1 million for its headquarters.”
But Murtha has been a major backer as well, which is not surprising since his wife, Joyce, is the library’s vice president. Indeed, the library has been something of a pet cause for Murtha. One lobbyist who has sought defense money from Murtha sent a note, which I obtained, to another lobbyist who was looking for money from the congressman as well. “If you want to influence Joyce Murtha,” the note said coyly, “you can by donating to this program.” The note was sent attached to the brochure of the First Ladies’ Museum.