WASHINGTON -- As Democrats meet today to decide whether Rep. John Murtha will become House majority leader next year, questions about the Johnstown lawmaker's history of back-room deal-making and ties to lobbyists may hurt his chances for success.
Murtha supporters say the accusations are just dirty campaign tactics in a tight race between him and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
But some critics argue that Mr. Murtha's past makes him unsuited to serve in the house's No. 2 leadership position, especially after Democrats heavily criticized Republican corruption scandals in the run-up to last week's midterm election.
Leading the charge against Mr. Murtha is the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, which gave him "dishonorable mention" in a September report on the most corrupt members of Congress.
CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan this week slammed House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is set to become House speaker, for publicly endorsing Mr. Murtha's candidacy. "How can Americans believe that the Democrats will return integrity to the House when future Speaker Pelosi has endorsed an ethically challenged member for a leadership position?" she asked. "Rep. Murtha is the wrong choice for this job."
The report accuses Mr. Murtha of using his position on the powerful House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to help clients of a lobbying firm that employed his brother and another firm founded by former committee staffer Paul Magliocchetti.
In 2002, KSA Consulting hired Robert "Kit" Murtha. Two years later, at least 10 KSA clients profited from a $417 billion defense appropriations bill, including seven companies that received $20.8 million in federal earmarks.
Kit Murtha's first client at KSA was AEPTEC Microsystems, a Maryland company that specializes in wireless networking. John Murtha lobbied Pennsylvania officials for a $1.5 million grant to help the company build a business complex in his Western Pennsylvania district. His congressional subcommittee also later awarded the company $4.2 million for a military project.
Kit Murtha has said he did not lobby his brother's office.
Mr. Magliocchetti, a former Pittsburgher who worked for 10 years as a Defense Appropriations panel senior staff member, is founder of the PMA Group, one of Washington's top defense lobbying firms. It is also a top donor to Mr. Murtha's campaigns, the CREW report says. The firm and 11 of its clients gave the congressman $274,649 in contributions this year. In the 2004 and 2002 election cycles, PMA and its clients gave Mr. Murtha a total of more than $515,000.
The firm's clients have benefited from the appropriations process, receiving a total of $95.1 million in the 2006 defense bill. That bill also delivered $80 million for projects in Mr. Murtha's district, according to the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Mr. Murtha has never formally been accused of any wrongdoing in his work as an appropriator. But the process has netted other lawmakers, including former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., who was convicted of bribery after accepting millions of dollars from contractors who were trying to secure earmarks.
Mr. Murtha's office did not respond to phone messages seeking his comments about the allegations.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said Mr. Murtha, his longtime ally, has been under attack ever since he came out against the Iraq war last year -- first, from Republicans and, now, from Mr. Hoyer's allies, who want to discredit him in the race for the leadership post.
"He's running for the big spot, and this is what happens," Mr. Doyle said of Mr. Murtha, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. "This has all been thrown at him ever since he came out against Iraq."
But some observers think Mr. Murtha's past as an appropriator makes him less likely to fight for a series of ethics reforms being promoted by Ms. Pelosi, such as a ban on gifts from lobbyists, a two-year waiting period before ex-lawmakers can join lobbying firms and more transparency in the process known as "earmarking," designating funds for specific projects.
Ms. Pelosi hopes to act on those proposals soon after Democrats assume control of Congress in January.
"The Democrats got elected, in part, on reforming the system," said Steve Ellis, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Congressman Murtha has been able to navigate the appropriations system as well or better than anyone else in Congress. It's hard to believe that he is going to fix a system that he has used, and [that] has rewarded him for decades."
Indeed, Mr. Murtha caused a stir this week after reports emerged that he had called Ms. Pelosi's ethics reform bill "total crap" in a meeting with a group of moderate Democrats. Yet he still plans to support it.
"There's a lot of crap going on in Congress all the time," he told host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball" program last night, when asked about the remark. "Guys violate the law -- some do. But the problem we have is a few people violate the law, and then the whole Congress has to be changed."
Mr. Matthews also asked Mr. Murtha about his role in the 26-year-old Abscam bribery scandal. The congressman was an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the FBI sting operation, in which agents used video recordings to net several of his colleagues on bribery, conspiracy and related charges. When an agent offered him $50,000, Mr. Murtha said he wasn't interested "at this point."
"Listen, I wanted to negotiate with them [disguised federal agents] about investment in the district; that's what I was interested in," Mr. Murtha said on "Hardball" yesterday. "It's the only thing I was interested in."
Mr. Murtha, 74, was first elected to Congress 32 years ago, and he has been a behind-the-scenes player for most of his career. That changed last November, when he called for the United States to start pulling troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. In the spring, he announced his intention to run for majority leader if the Democrats won the midterm elections.
Mr. Hoyer, now the No. 2 House Democrat behind Ms. Pelosi, was the presumed frontrunner. He and Ms. Pelosi have had a tense relationship since 2001, when she defeated him in a leadership election for the post of party whip.
Mr. Murtha managed Ms. Pelosi's campaign in that race, and the two have long been close colleagues. But she still surprised many members by publicly endorsing Mr. Murtha this week. A Murtha loss in today's election could damage her prestige just as she prepares to take power as the first female speaker of the House.
Mr. Hoyer himself has avoided criticizing Mr. Murtha. "My expectation is that Mr. Murtha is going to play a very important role in the future as the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee," Mr. Hoyer told reporters.
Mr. Doyle said he didn't think the attacks on Mr. Murtha would affect today's vote, since most members have been the focus of tough campaign tactics while running for their own seats. He also said Mr. Murtha would disprove his critics regarding ethics issues.
"I think the final test will be what he does," Mr. Doyle said. "The first action you're going to see this party leadership take is to pass Nancy Pelosi's ethics reform package."
Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or 202-488-3479