Ethics panel clears 7 House members on earmarks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House ethics committee on Friday cleared seven lawmakers of improperly or illegally considering campaign contributions when steering earmarks amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly no-bid contracts to some 40 companies.

In a 305-page report, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said its nine-month investigation revealed a widespread perception among corporations and lobbyists that campaign contributions provided enhanced access to lawmakers or a greater chance of getting earmarks.

In reality, members of Congress “by and large, take great care to separate their official and campaign functions, particularly with respect to earmark requests,” it said in a unanimous decision.

In fact, it cited many cases of companies questioning why they had not obtained funding for a project after making substantial campaign contributions.

The committee said its investigation showed that earmarks were judged on “criteria independent of campaign contributions, such as the number of jobs created in the member’s district or the value to the taxpayer or the U.S. military.”

The investigation had focused on seven House members with connections to an influential, now-defunct lobbying firm, PMA Group: Representatives Norm Dicks, Marcy Kaptur, James Moran, John Murtha, C.W. Bill Young, Todd Tiahrt and Peter Visclosky.

Murtha, who was chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, died on February 8. The other six lawmakers were members of the panel, and Dicks is expected to be voted as Murtha’s successor.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, which conducts preliminary reviews, had recommended in December that the first five of those cases be dismissed, while urging further review of allegations against Tiahrt and Visclosky.

The ethics committee said it reviewed nearly 250,000 pages of documents in its comprehensive investigation, concluding unanimously that “the evidence presently before the Committee does not support a determination that any House Member or employee violated any law, regulation, rule or other applicable standard of conduct.”

“Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not ... support a claim that a member’s actions are being influenced by campaign contributions,” the report said.

Taxpayers for Common Sense and other watchdog groups criticized the ethics committee’s decision to clear the lawmakers, but said it was not surprising.

Members of the ethics committee themselves obtained $200 million in earmarks either by themselves or with other lawmakers, Taxpayers said on its web site.

“The ethics committee seems to have taken a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ approach to potential earmark quid pro quo,” the group said. It said the idea that lawmakers ignore previous or future campaign contributions “flies in the face of political realities and, quite frankly, common sense.”

The ethics committee report did find did what it called “troubling aspects” to PMA’s conduct, including some “strong-arm tactics” in which the lobbying group threatened to withdraw financial support or encourage businesses to relocate out of a member’s district. But the report said in those cases, members refused to change their positions opposing earmarks, and in one case, even notified the ethics panel.

The PMA Group, founded by Paul Magliocchetti, a long-staffer on Murtha’s committee, closed about a year ago after FBI agents raided its office as part of an investigation focused on illegal campaign contributions and earmarks.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa