More Questions for Murtha

John Murtha just never gets old. Just when you think there’s nothing more that he could possibly do to earn an ethics investigation, he goes and surprises you. Today Roll Call reports that Murtha redirected an earmark away from a company that had dropped his brother as its lobbyist, and to a current client of his brother – a firm that pocketed the money instead of spending it on Navy R&D programs:

The bill included a “technical corrections” section, which transferred $8.2 million to “other procurement, Air Force” for a project called the “mobile common data link gateway.” This project — later called the “ground mobile gateway” — was an effort to build a unified battlefield communications platform for the Air Force by a Pennsylvania company called Coherent Systems.

Six months earlier, Murtha’s brother Kit Murtha and his firm KSA Consulting had registered to lobby for Coherent systems.

The tsunami bill specified that the money for the Air Force gateway project be transferred from two Navy research and development projects, one called the “all-in-one wireless access points,” the other called “wireless network capable application processors.” Both of these projects, totaling $8.2 million, were being carried out by a company with offices in Murtha’s district called AEPTEC or 3e Technologies Inc.

Maryland-based AEPTEC had been a client of both KSA Consulting and the PMA Group — another lobbying firm with close ties to Murtha until it was raided by the FBI last year and dissolved at the end of March. In April 2004, Murtha issued a press release hailing the opening of a new building in Indiana, Pa., that AEPTEC planned to occupy.

Murtha had secured several earmarks for the company in previous years, and in 2001, he announced that AEPTEC would be an initial supporter of a nonprofit Murtha was creating called the Pennsylvania Association for Individuals With Disabilities.

But something went awry in Murtha’s relationship with AEPTEC.

Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey said “the only recollection we have is that there was an import/export issue that had involved AEPTEC, and when this was brought to light, they disappeared as a company.”

At the time, Murtha was the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which he now chairs.

AEPTEC never moved into the new building, instead holing up with a handful of staff at an existing office park down the road.

Early in 2005, KSA filed documents terminating its lobbying relationship with AEPTEC, effective Dec. 31, 2004. PMA had ceased representing AEPTEC in the middle of 2003, and a third lobbyist on the AEPTEC payroll, a lawyer named Zel Lipsen, also terminated his relationship with the firm on Dec. 31, 2004 — though he did not file the paperwork until 15 months later.

Kit Murtha told Roll Call that his memory of AEPTEC is fuzzy, but “I did know that there was some kind of thing happening about work going out of the country rather than staying here. It seems to me that somehow, some way they were taking money and then … they were taking the work to China or someplace.”

Kit Murtha said, “I can’t speak for Jack, and I can’t speak for anybody else, but that certainly would have pissed Jack off.”

According to a federal indictment filed in Florida, Coherent used $200,000 of the money that was provided in the tsunami bill to purchase tracking devices from a Florida company called Schaller Engineering.

The government alleges that those tracking devices were never delivered and that the money was distributed for the personal use of the owners of Schaller and the Defense Department program manager who was overseeing the project. The men all deny the allegations, and the case is scheduled to go to trial later this month.

Coherent and its then-President Richard Ianieri have not been charged with any crime in the case, and Ianieri’s lawyer said he cannot comment on the case while litigation is ongoing.

In August 2007, a company called Argon ST — which had previously received earmarks from Murtha and opened an office in his district — bought the assets of Coherent and, at the end of the year, hired Murtha staffer Gabrielle Carruth as vice president of government relations.

Carruth had been on Murtha’s staff since 2002 and was listed in a 2007 Congressional directory as his “Appropriations associate staff.” She has since left the firm and did not return calls requesting comment.

Neither John Murtha nor his brother Kit can recall why they took money away from the firm that had fired Kit, and instead sent it to a bunch of crooks. Maybe AEPTEC was doing something unethical – and we know Murtha won’t tolerate improprieties. It’s also worth noting that it never occurred to Murtha to simply not spend the money. If AEPTEC did something heinous – like firing his brother or not paying rent to the tech center he started – then perhaps their project could just be cancelled, rather than given to someone else who pays your family a retainer.

John Murtha is a walking, talking, breathing repudiation of the Democrats’ promise to clean up Washington. His continued tenure in a position of power in the House of Representatives ought to embarrass any elected official who claims to favor clean government. What’s more, he’s bound to be indicted eventually.

Why won’t Pelosi and the House Democrats end this embarrassment before he drags them down, too?