Murtha: If I’m Corrupt, It’s Because I Care

Headline in the May 2 New York Times: “Murtha’s Nephew Named a Lobbyist for Marines.” Headline just three days later in the May 5 Washington Post: “Murtha’s Nephew Got Defense Contracts.”

Guess what? Two different nephews. They’re brothers, though, each blessed with the same, beneficent and no doubt beloved uncle, Pennsylvania Congressman John P. Murtha, Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, friend of the military-industrial complex; a man who’s generous to family and constituents, always ready to lend an ear — or, rather, earmark.

His nephew Colonel Brian Murtha, a Marine helicopter pilot, has been transferred to the Marines’ legislative liaison office — which deals with Congress and Murtha’s subcommittee — and has even moved into the same Virginia condo building as his Uncle Jack. “It does not appear to violate any rules or ethics guidelines,” the Times reported, “though it may well raise some eyebrows among legislative liaisons competing for resources on behalf of the other military services.”

The other nephew, Robert C. Murtha, Jr, a former Marine, runs a company in Glen Burnie, Maryland, called Murtech Inc. According to The Washington Post, “Last year, Murtech received $4 million in Pentagon work, all of it without competition, for a variety of warehousing and engineering services.”

Murtha, Jr., denied that his uncle had anything to do with his business success, but on Monday, the Post revealed documents that “show Robert Murtha mentioning his influential family connection as leverage in his business dealings and holding unusual power in his dealings with the military.” In the e-mails obtained by the Post, Murtha tells associates that part of the federal money must be spent in Uncle Jack’s hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Alice Crites described Murtech’s HQ as a “bland building . . . blinds drawn tight and few signs of life. On several days of visits, a handful of cars sit in the parking lot, and no trucks arrive at the 10 loading bays at the back of the building.” And a former employee of the company told the Post, “I was always thinking, ‘Why is the government paying this company?’ If it’s fair to have this kind of no-bid work, I’ll start a company and do it for half as much. Because this company didn’t do anything.”

Robert, Jr., and Brian are the sons of Jack Murtha’s brother Robert Murtha, Sr., known as “Kit,” who, as the Post notes, “built a longtime lobbying practice around clients seeking defense funds through the Appropriations Committee and became one of the top members of KSA, a lobbying firm whose contract clients often received multimillion-dollar earmarks directed through the committee chairman.” Kit Murtha retired three years ago.

So, just as the Quakers came to the Keystone State to do good and then did well, many amongst the Murthas of Pennsylvania have prospered. But thanks to Congressman Murtha, the defense industry and his home district in western PA have fared even better.

Rep. Jack Murtha is himself a former Marine and Eagle Scout, a decorated veteran (the first Vietnam vet to serve in Congress, elected in 1974). He has long been a champion of the military, especially the enlisted men and women, and has spoken angrily about the lack of proper treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder among those who have fought in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Murtha who in November 2005 announced, “The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home.”

But it’s also Murtha who was named one of the 20 most corrupt members of Congress by the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Last year, Esquire Magazine named him one of the ten worst members of Congress because of his opposition to ethics reform limiting the use of earmarks, funds for those favorite slices of pork slipped into appropriations bills. (Murtha called the ethics reform bill “total crap.”)

Since Murtha joined the appropriations committee, the group Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates that he has sent more than $2 billion worth of pork back home, more than any other congressman ($192.5 million in the 2008 budget alone).

“If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a sentiment that may go down in political history with that familiar saying from the 19th century, “An honest politician is one who when he’s bought, stays bought.”

Murtha’s largesse has funded, among other projects, the National Drug Intelligence Center, in beautiful downtown Johnstown, which critics say duplicates intelligence gathering in Washington and along the Texas-Mexico border; and Pennsylvania State University’s Electro-Optics Center, a defense research facility, which has received $250 million in federal funding, “a significant portion” of which, according to an earlier Washington Post investigation, is channeled “to companies that were among Murtha’s campaign supporters.”

But my personal favorite is the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, affectionately known around his district as “Fort Murtha.” Over the last ten years, the 650-acre mountaintop airport has received $200 million in federal cash and yet, on weekdays, only six commercial flights take off from or land there, all of them headed to or from, surprise, Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC. Just recently, this “airport for nobody” became one of the first to receive stimulus money — $800,000 to widen runways.

About thirty million dollars of the taxpayers’ money have been spent to beef the place up so it also can handle jumbo military aircraft and serve as a warehouse for military supplies in case a national emergency cuts off Pittsburgh International Airport, two hours away. There’s a Marine helicopter base there, a National Guard training center, even an $8.6 million, high tech radar system, but it’s never been used because the Pennsylvania National Guard is in charge and they haven’t got the manpower to operate it.

Supporters defend the airport not only as useful for the military but as a lure for businesses considering relocation in the area. In fact, without the money he’s brought in, Murtha said, the city of Johnstown — its once busy steel industry long dead — “would have been like Detroit is today. We would have been a ghost town.” But as a recent editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opined, “Sure, plenty of people in Johnstown are grateful. But Mr. Murtha’s insistence that this is how the process must work misses the reality that his constituents deserve to have their tax dollars spent on projects that have proven their value through competitive bidding and impartial evaluation. A view that the ends justify the means leaves too many questions: Are the projects necessary? Is the method of selection fair? Are political contributors the real winners?”

Which brings us to the other shoe scheduled to drop in the coming weeks and months. In November, the FBI raided the offices of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm founded twenty years ago by former Murtha aide Paul Magliocchetti that brought in earmarked defense contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They searched Magliocchetti’s home, too, and last month, PMA went out of business.

Reportedly, the investigation is focusing initially on whether PMA used various individuals as straw men — conduits for illegal campaign contributions — and if free meals and other gifts from the high-rolling Magliocchetti were bribes linked to votes from members of Murtha’s subcommittee.

From 1998, PMA clients gave more than $7.8 million in campaign contributions to subcommittee members, including $2.4 million to Jack Murtha. Oddly enough, The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund has pointed out, those contributions often were made in March, around the time earmark requests are made.

“Many on Capitol Hill,” The New York Times reported March 30th, “recalling the scandal that mushroomed around the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, are wondering who will be ensnared in the investigation as prosecutors pore over the financial records and computer files of one of K Street’s most influential lobbyists.”

As accusations of bribery and fraud mount and the FBI probe continues, Jack Murtha and his colleagues better batten down the hatches and prepare for a whole new Johnstown Flood.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at Read other articles by Michael, or visit Michael's website.