Three years after Dems rode Nancy Pelosi’s promise to “drain the swamp” to a congressional majority, a potentially big scandal has been simmering that threatens to cause problems for the party going into the 2010 midterms.
It’s a story involving what was one of D.C.’s biggest lobbying firms (until it was raided by the Feds and closed up shop), several powerful Democratic appropriators, and the defense industry. And it appears to be considerably more serious that the allegations of financial misconduct that have dogged Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) — allegations that have gotten the lion’s share of press coverage focusing on ethical transgressions.
A federal criminal investigation has touched two House Dems, and another three, along with two Republicans, are under scrutiny by a pair of congressional ethics panels in matters related to the defunct lobbying firm, PMA Group.
The investigation appears to have two focal points, according to reports: that PMA may have funneled sham donations to members of Congress through so-called “straw donors” who would be reimbursed, and that there may have been a quid pro quo, exchanging defense earmarks for campaign donations.
PMA’s lobbying activities centered on winning earmarks doled out by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, chaired by John Murtha of Pennsylvania. It was founded in the late 1980s by a former aide on the committee, Paul Magliocchetti.* And it was staffed over the years by ex-aides for Murtha, Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-IN), and Rep. James Moran (D-VA).
TPMmuckraker has kept a close eye on the case. Major newspaper editorial boards have voiced their concerns. The Times and the Post have each done solid reporting. So why, at this point, nine months after the FBI raid appeared in the news, aren’t we hearing more about this? Why hasn’t it stuck?
It’s probably a combination of factors: the infrequent media leaks from the Feds; the complexity and diffuseness of the case; and the lack of a single high-profile figure who is the focus of investigators.
It’s not for lack of color that the story hasn’t taken off. Like many Washington influence peddlers, Magliocchetti was a boisterous figure known for wooing lawmakers with fancy meals and booze. His wine locker at the Capital Grille steakhouse was famously labeled “Mags.”
The FBI raided PMA’s offices last November, and its top lobbyists scattered after the episode became public (the Feds have also reportedly raided Magliocchetti’s home). The firm went under this spring.
The amounts of money involved — including plenty of taxpayer dollars — are staggering. Seven lawmakers who are under scrutiny by two House ethics panels steered $200 million to PMA clients in the past two years, according to watchdog groups.
What kind of projects was the money for? This year, some of PMA’s former clients received federal contracts for “next-generation precision-airdrop capabilities” and “submarine navigation decision aids.”
The lawmakers received fistfuls of cash from PMA and its clients over the years — reportedly $1.75 million to Murtha alone over the past three election cycles. And, the Washington Post recently noted, PMA’s services didn’t come cheap:
While lawmakers received generous contributions, PMA used its growing influence with the panel over the past decade to become one of the top 10 lobby shops in Washington and took in $114 million in lobbying fees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.
Besides Murtha, the other lawmaker who appears most entangled with PMA is a little-known Democrat from Indiana named Peter Visclosky. A friend of Murtha who is also a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, he has been subpoenaed for documents in the probe, and his legal bills are soaring.
PMA isn’t yet the Dems’ Jack Abramoff, but it is certainly worth following closely. We plan to do just that.
* 11/30/09 Correction: In a previous version of this article, we incorrectly described Magliocchetti as a “former Murtha aide on the committee.” Magliocchetti was an aide on the committee before Murtha was chair or ranking member. We regret the error.