Analysts: Ethics probe won't imperil Defense earmarks

The disclosure that seven House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee members are being scrutinized for their ties to PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm that raised money for lawmakers and won earmarks for clients, is not expected to have a chilling effect on negotiations to reach agreement on a final fiscal 2010 Defense spending bill.

According to analysts for watchdog groups that monitor the appropriations process, House-Senate discussions are probably too far along for negotiators to start weeding out earmarks because of Friday's disclosure by the Washington Post of a confidential document revealing that the appropriators are under investigation by the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics.

"You figure the bill is pretty much written," said Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "I would be surprised if it had a big impact on the fiscal 2010 legislation."

Mandy Smithberger, national security investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, likewise said she believes that "for this year, things are pretty much done."

Even if lawmakers had more time, Smithberger questioned whether the members under investigation would scramble to scrub the bill of earmarks that might be tainted by the probes. "A lot of the biggest earmarkers are proud of it, and it just doesn't really offend their sensibilities," she said.

Appropriators have not held a formal conference meeting on the Defense Appropriations bill, but staffers have been conducting informal negotiations for weeks and have resolved most differences in the two chambers' versions of the spending measure.

A spokesman for House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., one of the seven lawmakers under review, declined to comment.

The lawmakers are under scrutiny for their connections to PMA Group, whose offices were raided by the FBI last year as part of an investigation into whether the firm made improper political contributions to members.

Besides Murtha, members under review include the Defense subcommittee's top Republican, Rep. C.W. (Bill) Young, R-Fla., as well as Reps. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind.; James Moran, D-Va.; Norman Dicks, D-Wash.; Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; and Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, according to the Post, is examining whether members secured earmarks benefiting PMA's defense clients in exchange for campaign contributions from the firm's PAC.

Earmarks for PMA clients totaled more than $600 million in fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2009 -- with about $184 million of those earmarks coming from the seven members under investigation, according to data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense. PMA Group has closed its doors, but some of its lobbyists migrated to new firms with their old clients and managed to secure fiscal 2010 appropriations earmarks on their behalf.

Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate budget analyst, said he would have urged his boss to strike any questionable earmarks from the bill. "That won't remove their problem, but it might help appearances," said Wheeler, who now tracks defense spending at the Center for Defense Information.

But, like his counterparts at other watchdog groups, Wheeler said he would not be surprised if several members, including Murtha, "say, 'I didn't do anything wrong ... and I won't change a thing.'"

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