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In backing Murtha, Pelosi draws fire

House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi's endorsement of Rep. John P. Murtha's bid for House majority leader set off a furor Monday on Capitol Hill.
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House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi's endorsement of Rep. John P. Murtha's bid for House majority leader set off a furor yesterday on Capitol Hill, with critics charging that she is undercutting her pledge to clean up corruption by backing a veteran lawmaker who they say has repeatedly skirted ethical boundaries.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) directly intervened in the heated contest between Murtha (D-Pa.) and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) on Sunday by circulating a letter to Democratic lawmakers. The letter voiced her support for Murtha and put her prestige on the line in a closely fought leadership battle. Some Democratic lawmakers and watchdog groups say they are baffled that Pelosi would go out of her way to back Murtha's candidacy after pledging to make the new 110th Congress the most ethical and corruption-free in history.

Murtha, a longtime senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has battled accusations over the years that he has traded federal spending for campaign contributions, that he has abused his post as ranking party member on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, and that he has stood in the way of ethics investigations. Those charges come on top of Murtha's involvement 26 years ago in the FBI's Abscam bribery sting.

"Pelosi's endorsement suggests to me she was interested in the culture of corruption only as a campaign issue and has no real interest in true reform," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a Democratic-leaning group. "It is shocking to me that someone with [Murtha's] ethics problems could be number two in the House leadership."

"People have known about these things for months," said one Democratic House member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to anger the presumed incoming speaker. "I am sure they are going to become much more important in the next few days."

Andrew Koneschusky, a spokesman for Murtha, declined to discuss ethics issues, saying: "We are focused on the future. We are focused on electing the best candidate to lead our party and deliver the change the American people want, and that is Jack Murtha. We are looking forward, not backward."

Pelosi said in her letter that she was swayed to endorse Murtha, a longtime ally, by his early call for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Pelosi aides and Murtha supporters said the charges against him are trivial or untrue. A senior Pelosi aide conceded that her endorsement is risky but said that she had to show her loyalty to Murtha, who has been steadfastly loyal to her.

‘No substance’
As for the ethics issue, "there's no substance to it," said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.), a strong supporter of Murtha.

At issue is Murtha's relationships with two defense lobbyists. Paul Magliocchetti of the PMA Group is a former aide to the lawmaker, and Robert "Kit" Murtha is his brother and was a senior partner at KSA Consulting from 2002 to 2005.

The PMA Group has become the go-to firm to approach Murtha as ranking Democrat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, CREW charges. In the 2006 defense appropriations bill, PMA clients reaped at least 60 special provisions, or "earmarks," worth more than $95 million.

The PMA Group and its clients have been top campaign contributors for Murtha: $274,649 in the 2006 campaign cycle, $236,799 in the 2004 cycle and $279,074 in the 2002 cycle, according to CREW's tallies.

After Kit Murtha joined KSA Consulting in 2002, one of his first clients was a wireless networking company called Aeptec Microsystems Inc., which was seeking to build a business complex in Murtha's district with a Pennsylvania state grant. Aeptec executive Michael Hoban contributed $2,000 to Murtha's campaign that year.

In 2004, Murtha helped secure the grant. A few months later, the Appropriations subcommittee approved a $4.2 million earmark for the company.

Murtha may be the Democratic Party's consummate dealer in home-district spending. Taxpayers for Common Sense identified more than $103 million in earmarks in the 2006 defense spending bill that Murtha requested for his home district in southwestern Pennsylvania -- nearly $80 million of which cleared President Bush's desk.

"Hoyer gains his influence the 'regular' way," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "He travels, and he raises money for his leadership [political action committee], which doles it out to help Democrats get elected. Murtha doesn't bother with that nicety. For years, he has used his powerful perch as the ranking Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee to dole out earmarks to build influence. Hoyer raises campaign cash; Murtha taps the taxpayer for influence."

Former congressman Chris Bell (D-Tex.) said yesterday that Murtha helped elevate Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.) to the top Democratic spot on the House ethics committee, and that Murtha and Mollohan have worked to slow the ethics process to a crawl for much of the past two years.

As for the Abscam case, Murtha was not indicted and his conduct was cleared by the House ethics committee, but he did meet with FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks and, after refusing bribes on several occasions, appeared to leave open the possibility of doing business later. Hoyer has been criticizes as well for his legislative dealings, especially for his close ties to lobbyists and business interests. But it is Murtha's record that Pelosi will have to defend, watchdog groups said yesterday.

Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), a Murtha supporter, said he was not aware of the ethical issues around the lawmaker. but said they will have little impact on Democrats as they gather Thursday to choose the next majority leader.

"The bottom line is, Nancy has decided what team she wants," Capuano said. "What members have to ask themselves is whether they want a unified leadership team or a fractured leadership team. That will make a difference in the next two years."

Strained relationship with Hoyer
Hoyer and Pelosi have had a strained relationship since Hoyer competed with her in 2001 for the post of minority whip; Murtha managed her winning campaign. The urge to stay loyal to the presumed new Democratic speaker -- as well as to curry favor to obtain committee assignments -- will bring a substantial number of votes to Murtha, one of his supporters said.

Hoyer supporters continue to say he has more than enough votes to prevail, regardless of Pelosi's wishes. Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) said Pelosi timed her endorsement to come out after the votes were solidified, giving a nod to Murtha for the sake of loyalty but doing little to sway the election.

"This race is already a done deal," agreed Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah).

In the Senate, Democrats will elect new leaders today and Republicans will follow tomorrow. The top two Democratic leadership positions are set. Harry M. Reid (Nev.) will remain as party leader and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) will remain as whip, but this time they will be in the majority, not the minority. A change is possible at the No. 3 slot, conference secretary. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) holds that position, but Senate sources said she may surrender it for a seat on the Finance Committee.

It was unclear who would succeed her, but Senate aides said it probably would be another woman. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) will remain chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Among Republicans, Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is set to become Senate minority leader, moving into the vacancy left by the retiring Bill Frist (Tenn.). There could be a contest between two Southerners seeking to succeed McConnell as party whip. Senate insiders said Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) appears to have enough votes, but former majority leader Trent Lott (Miss.) was still seeking support yesterday.

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is in line for the No. 3 post of Republican Conference chairman, now held by Rick Santorum (Pa.), who lost last week. Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) has agreed to chair the party's campaign committee, succeeding Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) after a disappointing election for the GOP.

Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.