Murtha, Mo­ran aid big-donor de­fense firm

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY CHUCK NEUBAUER

When soft­ware firm Mo­bilVox wanted to break into the lu­cra­tive world of de­fense con­tract­ing, it pur­sued an un­mis­tak­able strat­egy: It ex­panded op­er­a­tions from its North­ern Vir­ginia base in Rep. James P. Mo­ran’s con­gres­sional district to the south­west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia district of Rep. John P. Murtha.

Work­ing with two of the most pow­er­ful mem­bers of a House sub­com­mit­tee that con­trols Pen­tagon spending, the com­pany also hired lob­by­ing firms that em­ployed for­mer top aides of both the Demo­cratic law­mak­ers and Mr. Murtha’s brother. Com­pany ex­ec­u­tives and their lob­by­ists do­nated thou­sands of dol­lars to the two con­gress­men.

Soon, money flowed the other way.

Be­tween 2003 and 2009, Mr. Murtha and Mr. Mo­ran helped de­liver $12 mil­lion to Mo­bilVox in earmarks — money that is set aside by law­mak­ers for pet projects in the gov­ern­ment’s an­nual spending bills. The lat­est House de­fense spending bill in­tro­duced and pushed through by Mr. Murtha in­cludes an ad­di­tional $2 mil­lion ear­mark for Mo­bilVox re­quested by Mr. Mo­ran. The bill is cur­rently pend­ing in con­fer­ence com­mit­tee.

Mo­bilVox, the two law­mak­ers and the lob­by­ists hired by the com­pany in­sist they fol­lowed all con­gres­sional rules and cam­paign fundrais­ing laws, and that all ear­mark de­ci­sions were made on their merit. None has been ac­cused of any wrong­do­ing.

But Mo­bilVox’s suc­cess fits a pat­tern of do­ing busi­ness in Wash­ing­ton that ethics watch­dogs de­ride as a “pay-to-play” sys­tem — one that be­came in­fa­mous dur­ing Repub­li­can years and con­tin­ues to op­er­ate un­der a Demo­cratic lead­er­ship that had promised to change a “cul­ture of cor­rup­tion” in Wash­ing­ton.

Mr. Mo­ran’s and Mr. Murtha’s re­la­tion­ship with Mo­bilVox “raises red flags. It is not sub­tle. It looks bad,” said Joel He­fley, a re­tired Repub­li­can con­gress­man from Colorado who chaired the House ethics com­mit­tee when that panel ad­mon­ished then-Ma­jor­ity leader Tom De­Lay for eth­i­cal lapses ear­lier this decade.

Mr. He­fley, who re­tired in 2006, said he was par­tic­u­larly trou­bled by Mo­bilVox’s open­ing of an of­fice in Mr. Murtha’s district, say­ing that while there may have been a good rea­son, “It looks like it was done to curry fa­vor with a per­son who has power to ben­e­fit them.”

Mr. Murtha, chair­man of the House de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee, is un­der siege as mul­ti­ple grand ju­ries in­ves­ti­gate de­fense con­trac­tors close to him. The con­trac­tors built their busi­nesses on Murtha earmarks at the same time they do­nated to him, hired lob­by­ing com­pa­nies that em­ployed his for­mer aides, as­so­ci­ates and brother, and opened offices in his home district.

Mr. Mo­ran has es­caped the pub­lic scru­tiny that Mr. Murtha has faced, but Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion (FEC) and con­gres­sional lob­by­ing records show his re­la­tion­ship with Mo­bilVox fits a sub­stan­tially sim­i­lar pat­tern that ben­e­fited his cam­paign cof­fers and de­liv­ered lob­by­ing work to one of his clos­est for­mer top aides, Melissa Koloszar, the con­gress­man’s long­time chief of staff and ap­pro­pri­a­tions aide.

A fed­eral grand jury in Wash­ing­ton is in­ves­ti­gat­ing one of Mo­bilVox’s key lob­by­ists, Paul Maglioc­chetti, and his de­funct firm, The PMA Group, which was highly suc­cess­ful in get­ting earmarks for dozens of clients.

Pros­e­cu­tors have sig­naled that what be­gan as a probe into ques­tions of whether Mr. Maglioc­chetti il­le­gally re­im­bursed as­so­ci­ates for their cam­paign do­na­tions may end up tar­get­ing mem­bers of Congress and their aides. Al­though fed­eral agents searched PMA’s offices and Mr. Maglioc­chetti’s home in Novem­ber, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion did not be­come pub­lic un­til Fe­bru­ary, three months be­fore Rep. Peter J. Vis­closky, In­di­ana Demo­crat, an­nounced that a grand jury had sub­poe­naed records from his con­gres­sional and cam­paign offices.

PMA em­ploy­ees were the top cam­paign con­trib­u­tors to Mr. Vis­closky, and one of his for­mer chiefs of staff was a PMA lob­by­ist.

Mr. Vis­closky, a mem­ber of the de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee, has de­nied any wrong­do­ing, but has stepped down as chair­man of the en­ergy and wa­ter ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee.

A spokesman for Mr. Maglioc­chetti, who worked as a de­fense sub­com­mit­tee staffer with Mr. Murtha and other mem­bers for nine years be­fore be­com­ing a lob­by­ist, de­clined com­ment on the probe.

Mrs. Koloszar, who worked for PMA af­ter leav­ing Mr. Mo­ran’s of­fice, now works with her own lob­by­ing firm. In an e-mail to The Wash­ing­ton Times, she said she did not lobby Mr. Mo­ran’s of­fice dur­ing a one-year House-im­posed “cool­ing off pe­riod” aimed at pre­vent­ing top staffers from seek­ing leg­isla­tive fa­vors from their old bosses. She also said she did not lobby Mr. Murtha’s of­fice dur­ing the cool­ing-off pe­riod.

Bill Al­li­son of the Wash­ing-

ton, D.C.-based Sun­light Foun­da­tion, a non­par­ti­san watch­dog group, said the sys­tem that firms like Mo­bilVox use to get earmarks amounts to “an in­flu­ence tax on de­fense con­tracts.

“It raises the ques­tion of whether tax­pay­ers are get­ting the most bang for our buck,” Mr. Al­li­son said. “Com­pa­nies wouldn’t be hir­ing lob­by­ists or mak­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions if they didn’t think it was ef­fec­tive, but if it is ef­fec­tive, does that mean that the best com­pany gets the con­tract or the one with the best or best-con­nected lob­by­ist gets it?”

Re­ston, Va.-based Mo­bilVox, founded in 1998, de­vel­ops soft­ware to help the U.S. mil­i­tary re­duce the threat of im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices (IEDs) — road­side and car bombs. The soft­ware is de­signed to make it eas­ier to lo­cate, iden­tify and defuse the weapons.

Ac­cord­ing to data­bases main­tained by the De­fense Depart­ment and the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, Mo­bilVox had not re­ceived any De­fense con­tracts be­fore it be­gan work­ing with Mr. Mo­ran and Mr. Murtha.

But Mo­bilVox has re­ceived or shared in nine earmarks spon­sored by the two law­mak­ers since 2003 to­tal­ing $12.35 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to records and in­ter­views.

Dur­ing that same pe­riod, Mo­bilVox of­fi­cers and em­ploy­ees do­nated $39,000 to Mr. Murtha and his var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees and $21,000 to Mr. Mo­ran, records show.

Most of the do­na­tions came from En­rique Lenz, the com­pany’s owner and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer.

Mr. Lenz, in a writ­ten state­ment an­swer­ing some but not all of the ques­tions asked by The Times, said Mo­bilVox has de­vel­oped tech­nolo­gies use­ful in pre­vent­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks and sav­ing lives, and it has “com­plied with all ap­pli­ca­ble U.S. laws and reg­u­la­tions.” He also said the firm had de­liv­ered all of its U.S. con­tracts “on time and within bud­get.”

Lob­by­ing dis­clo­sure records show that Mo­bilVox paid at least $510,000 to po­lit­i­cally-con­nected lob­by­ists, in­clud­ing $350,000 to Mr. Maglioc­chetti’s PMA Group over a three-year pe­riod beginning in Fe­bru­ary 2006 through this past March, when the firm closed in the fall­out of the fed­eral probe.

Both Mr. Murtha and Mr. Mo­ran said through spokes­men that the Mo­bilVox earmarks were based on the qual­ity of the firm’s tech­nol­ogy and not on who lob­bied or gave do­na­tions.

“Our of­fice com­plies with all the rules of the House and we do not keep records re­gard­ing who rep­re­sented firms in our district and at what time,” Mr. Mo­ran’s spokesman, Austin Dur­rer, said in a writ­ten state­ment. Mr. Murtha’s spokesman, Matthew Ma­zon­key, said the Mo­bilVox ear­mark re­quests were thor­oughly vet­ted.

Since 1989, PMA’s lob­by­ists and em­ploy­ees have do­nated $271,500 to Mr. Vis­closky, $171,200 to Mr. Mo­ran and $167,400 to Mr. Murtha, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics (CRP), a non­par­ti­san watch­dog that mon­i­tors cam­paign fi­nances. When cou­pled with do­na­tions from the firm’s clients, the PMA-re­lated po­lit­i­cal gifts for each of the three law­mak­ers jump to $1 mil­lion or more, CRP said.

Watch­dog groups such as Com­mon Cause asked the House ethics com­mit­tee to in­ves­ti­gate Mr. Murtha, Mr. Mo­ran and Mr. Vis­closky to de­ter­mine whether they traded earmarks for cam­paign gifts from PMA and its clients. In June, af­ter pres­sure from House Repub­li­cans and var­i­ous watch­dog agen­cies, the com­mit­tee an­nounced it had al­ready be­gun to look into any mis­con­duct of mem­bers and em­ploy­ees of the House in con­nec­tion with ac­tiv­i­ties of the PMA Group.

Mr. Murtha, chair­man or rank­ing mem­ber of the House de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee for the past 20 years, has said he has done noth­ing wrong and the in­ves­ti­ga­tions don’t con­cern him. A staunch de­fender of earmarks, Mr. Murtha says on his Web site that “elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple un­der­stand their con­stituents and dis­tricts best.”

Records show that in 2003, Mo­bilVox hired two lob­by­ing firms — one with ties to Mr. Murtha and the Democrats and an­other with ties to now-disgraced for­mer Rep. Randy “Duke” Cun­ning­ham, a Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can then on the de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee.

Mo­bilVox hired Ti­mothy Char­ters, for­mer aide to Mr. Cun­ning­ham, pay­ing his lob­by­ing firm, Char­ters and Co., $80,000 be­tween July 2003 and June 2005. Dur­ing that pe­riod, Repub­li­cans con­trolled the House and Mr. Cun­ning­ham had not yet been ac­cused by the Jus­tice Depart­ment of tak­ing bribes.

Mr. Char­ters said Mo­bilVox needed help in get­ting the De­fense Depart­ment in­ter­ested in a new hand­held de­vice it had de­vel­oped for mil­i­tary or­di­nance dis­posal teams, and Mr. Cun­ning­ham played no role in his work for the firm. He said he in­tro­duced com­pany of­fi­cials to Mr. Mo­ran to per­suade the law­maker to spon­sor an ear­mark for the de­vice.

“In or­der to ed­u­cate the con­gress­man about this prod­uct, we in­vited him to visit the Mo­bilVox fa­cil­ity and meet with ex­perts in the bomb dis­posal com­mu­nity and Mo­bilVox em­ploy­ees,” Mr. Char­ters said in a writ­ten state­ment.

He said Mr. Mo­ran agreed to help and, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral records, a $1 mil­lion ear­mark later was in­serted into the de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill for 2005, which had passed in July 2004.

At the time, Mrs. Koloszar still worked as Mr. Mo­ran’s chief of staff and his ap­pro­pri­a­tions aide, but she left in Novem­ber 2005 to join PMA. A few months later, she be­came a lob­by­ist for Mo­bilVox.

The sec­ond lob­by­ing firm hired in 2003, KSA Con­sult­ing, em­ployed Robert “Kit” Murtha, the con­gress­man’s younger brother, and Car­men Scial­abba, who worked as a Murtha ap­pro­pri­a­tions com­mit­tee staffer for 27 years. In a 2000 trib­ute in the Con­gres­sional Record, Mr. Murtha de­scribed Mr. Scial­abba as “in­dis­pens­able.”

Listed on KSA dis­clo­sure re­ports as a Mo­bilVox lob­by­ist, Kit Murtha said he never used his brother to fur­ther his ca­reer. He said he told clients, “I don’t know if I can do any­thing. Jack can be kind of un­rea­son­able.” He de­scribed his KSA role as more of “a glad han­der,” who in­tro­duced Mo­bilVox ex­ec­u­tives to de­fense con­trac­tors.

In its dis­clo­sure forms, KSA said Mo­bilVox paid it less than $10,000 in fees for each six-month re­port­ing pe­riod be­tween 2003 and 2006, and it stopped work­ing for the Vir­ginia firm at the end of 2006.

In a brief tele­phone call, Mr. Scial­abba, who brought Kit Murtha into KSA, said he knew noth­ing about Mo­bilVox and hung up.

In 2004, a year af­ter Mo­bilVox hired the two lob­by­ing com­pa­nies, Mr. Lenz and Mr. Murtha jointly an­nounced that the com­pany was open­ing an of­fice in In­di­ana, Pa., in the con­gress­man’s fi­nan­cially strug­gling district. The an­nounce­ment came at Mr. Murtha’s an­nual “Show­case for Com­merce,” a trade show in his home­town of John­stown, Pa.

The show brings the na­tion’s top de­fense con­trac­tors to­gether for what Mr. Murtha has called “one of the largest gov­ern­ment­pro­cure­ment ex­po­si­tions in the coun­try.” Mr. Ma­zon­key, the Murtha spokesman, said the con­gress­man was “happy to wel­come Mo­bilVox to the district in 2004 to work on im­por­tant NASA and de­fense pro­grams.”

Over a three-year pe­riod, Mo­bilVox — with Mr. Murtha’s help — shared in three sep­a­rate $1.7 mil­lion earmarks for a U.S. Navy project that in­cluded a mo­bile field kit to help train sailors about ad­vanced IEDs. The earmarks were in the 2004, 2005 and 2006 ap­pro­pri­a­tions bills.

KATIE FALKEN­BERG / THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

An empty suite of offices in Arlington, Va. re­tains few hints of the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar suc­cesses of its for­mer oc­cu­pant, the lob­by­ing firm PMA Group, which spe­cial­ized in ob­tain­ing ear­mark leg­is­la­tion for clients.

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