Washington Babylon — March 19, 2009, 12:16 pm

Congressman Murtha’s Friends Team Up on Big Biodefense project

As has been widely reported, two firms with close links to Congressman John Murtha–lobby shop PMA Group and defense contractor Kuchera Defense Systems–have recently been raided by the feds. Now the Washington Post reports that a “Pennsylvania defense research center regularly consulted with two ‘handlers’ close to [Murtha] as it collected nearly $250 million in federal funding through the lawmaker.” The research center is called the Electro-Optics Center, and it operates under the auspices of Pennsylvania State University.

As I’ve written before, Congressman Murtha has a pretty simple modus operandi: He steers taxpayer money to the companies and institutions that support his campaigns, and to those that hire lobbyists of which he approves–often his friends or former staffers. “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.”

Here’s another interesting story involving Murtha and a supporting cast that includes a web of interconnected players with close ties to the congressman: a lobby shop, a private equity firm, a university, and a non-profit group. They’ve previously teamed up to win money from the biodefense honey-pot, and are currently looking for federal funding for a highly dubious project that could cost as much as $1 billion. The key players include:

  • Ervin Technical Associates (ETA): A lobby shop founded by Jim Ervin, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who the Wall Street Journal describes as a “longtime friend” of Murtha. ETA lobbies for a number of defense contractors, from big firms like Lockheed to smaller companies like Kuchera Defense. Ervin has helped raise money for Murtha and he has been a steady contributor to his campaigns and personal Leadership PAC.

  • The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Another client of ETA, it has paid the lobby shop more than $1 million since 2003. Meanwhile, UPMC’s PAC and employees have donated heavily to Murtha, including $192,500 in 2006 alone. That was the year after Murtha won an $8.5 million earmark for UPMC–lobbied for by ETA–for a communications network to mobilize “health care resources in response to large-scale emergencies.”

  • Four Seasons Ventures: A private equity firm based in Georgetown which Ervin helped found, it “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.

Four Seasons’ listed partners include retired generals Wesley Clark and Lester Lyles; and Joel McCleary, a White House aide under Jimmy Carter and former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. McCleary is a steady contributor to Democrats, with Murtha being the biggest recipient of his donations ($7,800 during the past four years). He is also a consultant to the Center for Biosecurity, a UPMC project, and the founder of PharmaThene.

Now–and bear with me–we come to a project called 21st Century Biodefense (21CB), which was formed by UPMC but which appears to operate out of the offices of Four Seasons. ETA lobbies for the project, which is looking for funding to develop and manufacture “vaccines and other medical countermeasures used for our nation’s biosecurity purposes,” in the words of UPMC spokeswoman Wendy Zellner.

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). A source knowledgeable about the project told me that Murtha has been briefed on it since the outset and has offered his general support.

None of those involved provided much information about the project. James Irvin of Four Seasons failed to return phone calls seeking comment. A lobbyist at ETA told my colleague Sam Fellman that the proposal is “in its infancy” and that no funding had yet been sought. Matt Mazonkey, Murtha’s spokesman, said the congressman has not requested funding for the project, but, “We support 21st Century Biodefense, and are concerned about bio-terrorism and security.” He deferred questions to UPMC.

Zellner of UPMC said that Four Seasons Ventures’ role is to assist UPMC as a strategic consultant on the project. She said that details about how 21CB would operate were still in a conceptual phase.

Privately, planning and goals seems to be a little bit more focused. Recently UPMC has been briefing project “stakeholders,” including pharmaceutical firms and government agencies.

A PowerPoint presentation of a January briefing, held at the offices of Four Seasons, laid out four possible routes for 21CB, but the “recommended option” is a brand-new government-financed factory to produce biodefense pharmaceuticals. Labeled the “Advanced Development and Manufacturing Facility,” it would cost about $ 1 billion if it were to proceed, according to sources I have spoken with. (This Help Wanted ad may be related to 21CB.)

Incidentally, the PowerPoint presentation was given by Philomena Gambale. She’s a Director of Government Affairs for UPMC, but her business card lists her address as the offices of Four Seasons.

Some readers might ask: What’s wrong with a project that would manufacture pharmaceuticals to protect against a potential biological weapons attack? Well, as seen previously in several of the Bush Administration’s initiatives, throwing money at a problem is not necessarily a smart strategy; a number of big biodefense initiatives have been spectacularly mismanaged.

In the specific case of 21CB, the need for a new government facility to produce vaccines and countermeasures appears highly dubious. A number of private sector firms already produce the same products that 21CB would manufacture–and given the economic climate, there’s likely plenty of excess capacity in place if there were a need to ramp up output. Spending $1 billion on a new federal facility would certainly be beneficial to UPMC, Four Seasons and ETA, it’s not at all clear that the country’s “biosecurity” would be enhanced as a result.

Indeed, even DARPA appears to have serious doubts about the project. An agency spokeswoman, Jan Walker, acknowledged to Fellman that DARPA had funded the original UPMC study but did not concur with its recommendations, including building a manufacturing facility. (We asked to see a copy or summary of the study, but did not hear back from Walker. She also declined to respond to a question about whether Murtha, or any other member of Congress, had contacted DARPA on UPMC’s behalf.)

UPMC also declined to answer a number of questions, among them:

What is the source of funding for UPMC’s investment in 21CB? When, specifically, was 21CB incorporated? Who are its officers and principals? What is its connection to Four Seasons?

Who is Philomena Gambale and what is her position at UPMC and/or 21CB? How is she paid and by whom?

Ervin Technical Associates lobbies for PharmaThene and Joel McLeary of Four Seasons is the founder and former Chairman of PharmaThene. Is there any relationship between PharmaThene and UPMC, or PharmaThene and 21CB?

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