Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a master of pork-barrel politics, died Monday at Virginia Hospital Center. Elected to Congress in 1974 from a southwestern Pennsylvania district that has been economically devastated by the decline of the nation’s coal-mining and steel industries.
He was revered among Democrats for his skill in using the power of the federal purse to make kings and deals. A right-hand man of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he was considered one of the most influential Democrats on Capitol Hill and credited with her ascension.
Murtha, the chairman of the powerful subcommittee that controls Pentagon spending, was dubbed the “King of Pork” for the volume of taxpayer money he could direct to the area around his home town of Johnstown. Most of the largess came in defense and military research contracts he steered to companies based in his district or with small offices there.
He abused the congressional practice of “earmarking” to the max. In that process, lawmakers add federal money to the budget to give no-bid contracts to pet projects and companies of their choosing. Murtha faced a drumbeat of questions about ethical conflicts in his earmarks, as executives and lobbyists for the firms receiving the earmarks were among his most generous campaign contributors.
Murtha was firmly unapologetic, saying it was his duty to divert funds to his district. To a television crew following him in a House office building with questions about potential conflicts, he held up his miniature red, page-worn copy of the Constitution.
“What it says is the Congress of the United States appropriates the money,” he said. “Got that?”
Murtha was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. As a result of the FBI undercover operation, several Capitol Hill figures were charged with agreeing to pay bribes to agents posing as representatives of Arab sheiks. Murtha was taped talking with an undercover agent about his interest in helping his district.
In 2005, he became a darling of the Democratic antiwar movement when he announced that he was in favor of withdrawing troops from Iraq. He had supported the resolution to go to war in 2002, but he later denounced the war effort as badly planned, calling it “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.”
Murtha lost his shot to become House majority leader after Democrats retook control of the House in 2006. He had successfully led Pelosi’s campaign to be speaker at that time, but some colleagues argued that he could be a political liability in the leadership because of what they called his old-style politics.
In the past two years, Murtha and several close associates came under the scrutiny of ethics and investigative panels.
In 2008, the FBI raided a powerhouse lobbying firm, PMA Group, whose founder, Paul Magliocchetti, was a close friend of Murtha’s and which had had unique success in winning earmarks from Murtha for its clients.
In January 2009, federal investigators raided Kuchera Industries, a Pennsylvania company that Murtha had helped grow with more than $100 million in military contracts and earmarks. The company was suspended from receiving further Navy contracts pending an investigation into allegations that the company had defrauded the government in its billing.
In May 2009, the Justice Department subpoenaed records from the offices of a Murtha protege, Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind). Investigators were looking into allegations that Visclosky’s chief of staff, who announced his resignation shortly after the subpoena, had pressured lobbyists to donate to Visclosky’s campaign in exchange for earmarks for their clients, two sources familiar with the probe said.
In December 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics reported that it saw no reason to continue its investigation of Murtha’s actions on behalf of PMA Group and recommended that the House ethics committee take no action against him.
In March 2009, Murtha told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that every lawmaker looks out for his own: “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district“.