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Will Murtha’s past haunt him as a leader?

Though a decorated Vietnam veteran, critics charge that Rep. John Murtha has a checkered ethical record. Will it keep him from winning the No. 2 leadership post in the House? NBC's Lisa Myers investigates.
/ Source: NBC News

In Rep. Nancy Pelosi's first interview after Democrats won control of the House, talking with NBC's Brian Williams on Nov. 8, she made a sweeping promise.

"To turn this Congress into the most honest and open Congress in history," she said. "That is my pledge. That is what I intend to do."

But some Democrats and ethics experts say that promise was undercut when Pelosi endorsed John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran with a checkered ethical record, for the No. 2 leadership position in the House.

"Rep. Murtha has basically been on the wrong side of public integrity issues during his career," says Fred Wertheimer, president of watchdog group Democracy 21.

Critics claim Murtha has amassed power in part by handing out taxpayer money to special interests, including to clients of defense lobbyists who give him big campaign contributions.  

Then, there is video from an FBI sting in 1980, known as Abscam. Murtha was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the federal bribery scandal, which led to the conviction of one U.S. senator and six members of Congress.

"Each packet contains $10,000 in $1,000 bills," says an undercover FBI agent on the tape as he offers a bribe to Murtha. "I went out, I got the $50,000," continues the agent as he opens a drawer and shows the money . "From what you're telling me, you're telling me that's not what, you know, that that's not what you..."

"I'm not interested," interrupts Murtha.


"At this point," clarifies Murtha.


"You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know," says Murtha.

Murtha refuses the cashand talks about his need to be cautious because of his ambitions.

"I expect to be in the (expletive) leadership of the House," he says on the tape. "And you have anything said about you, then you've got a problem."

As his supporters point out, that was 26 years ago. 

"Not only is it ancient history, but the fact of the matter is Jack Murtha was never charged with anything," says Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass.

The House Ethics Committee also did not take action against Murtha.

Murtha has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and says these charges amount to "Swift boating" — the same kind of unfair charges that helped defeat Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. Murtha also now supports ethics reform.