Members, staffers on both sides of “Chinese wall” between earmarks, fundraisers?


If nothing else, Jeffrey Smith’s story in the Washington Post proves that Mark Twain’s critique of congressional investigations still holds: “One does not blindfold one’s self in order to investigate an object.” So it is in the matter of PMA Group, the lobbying group that was a top donor to members of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee who were top earmarkers for PMA Group’s clients.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct–better known as the House Ethics Committee–looked at the hundreds of thousands of dollars that PMA Group and its clients contributed to lawmakers and the millions that lawmakers earmarked for PMA Group clients, and concluded, “…simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a members actions are being influenced by campaign contributions.” (See page 9 of the largely unsearchable 305 page PDF the committee released.)

It appears that only an ethics committee member could come to such a conclusion. On Saturday, Carole D. Leonnig reported on emails exchanged among earmark recipients who clearly understood that campaign contributions were given to improve the chance of getting earmarks; the Ethics Committee noted that, while it “did find that there is a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provide enhanced access to Members or a greater chance of obtaining earmarks,” that “the record indicates that Members, by and large, take great care to separate their official and campaign functions, particularly with respect to earmark requests.”

Smith’s article suggests that that “great care” consisted of having staffers who reviewed earmark requests invite the requesters to fundraisers:

Moran’s former defense aide, who now works for Boeing, similarly vetted earmarks and attended fundraisers, according to the reports, as did a military aide to Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). “To suggest having a staffer on personal time attend his boss’s fundraiser is in some way improper is absurd,” said Tiahrt spokesman Sam Sackett.

The chief of staff to the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who died on Feb. 8, regularly received campaign contribution lists and was the first reviewer of earmark requests, the report said. A Murtha aide responded Saturday that the review was cursory, however, and covered only a fraction of the requests.

The campaign manager for Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) in March 2008 solicited funds directly from defense-related companies that wanted the lawmaker’s earmark support, one report added, quoting from a lobbyist’s e-mail.

Again, the Ethics Committee concluded that “the evidence showed that earmarks were evaluated based upon criteria independent of campaign contributions, such as the number of jobs created in the Members district or the value to the taxpayer or the U.S. military, and without Members or their official staff linking, or being aware that companies may have intended to link, contributions with earmarks.” Blindfolds all around…