Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Optics of This Are Not Good

Politico has more on the emerging scandal over Rep. John Murtha's use of the Penn State Electro-Optics Center to direct money to clients of PMA a lobbying firm with close ties to the Congressman.
A source with long ties to the EOC said that Karl Harris, the center’s director, spent so much time at PMA’s office that “they had a designated space in which he could set up his stuff.”

Sources both inside and outside the EOC said Harris once told them that a Washington state contractor called nLight wouldn’t receive funding through the center — despite having made a request — because it had dropped PMA as its lobbying firm.

“Of course, we [learned] that nLight had just terminated PMA’s contract and so we could not do anything,” Harris wrote in a May 2006 e-mail message. “My only concern, between you and me, is I wonder what effect their dropping their contract with PMA will have on the viability [of] two FY07 plus-up requests.” “Plus-up” is the budgetary name for an earmark.

Harris did not return calls seeking comment.

Edward Liszka, director of defense-related research at Penn State with responsibility for the EOC, defended both Harris and the center.

The EOC really doesn’t do lobbying, so if a company that the EOC is working with has PMA as a lobbyist, the EOC wouldn’t necessarily know that,” Liszka said in an interview. Liszka said he was “pretty confident there’s no connection between Karl Harris and PMA. There would be no reason to; he doesn’t need to have one. I know he’s visited their offices in the past, but we don’t need to talk to PMA about anything we do.”

Constrast Liszka's assertion that the Center does no lobbying with this characterization of the EOC from a 2003 Pittsburgh Business Times article.
Mr. Murtha is widely credited for helping to secure federal funding to establish the East Franklin Township-based Electro-Optics Center, which is managed by the Penn State Applied Research Lab. The Electro-Optics Center acts as a clearinghouse for technical expertise, offers laboratory and research assistance to fledgling electro-optics firms and lobbies lawmakers on their behalf. The center also conducts research projects for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Navy, among others.

How could Liszka not know that lobbying was being done by the Center, since it appears to be a feature and not a bug? Liszka is also contradicted by
...internal EOC documents from recent years [that] suggest that EOC officials were informed of which lobbying firms represented which of the corporate partners seeking funding.

For instance, an internal fiscal year 2003 document outlining requests for EOC projects being pushed by Murtha noted the name and contact information for each lobbyist seeking funding on behalf of a client. The document stated that Cunningham and another then-PMA lobbyist were seeking $27 million in funding for their clients, who included a Boeing subsidiary, a Texas company called DRS Infrared and a small California defense contractor.

In the end, Murtha was able to steer to those PMA clients — through the EOC — $9.5 million of the $27 million they sought.

Other internal EOC documents show a similar interest in which lobbying firms were representing which contractors — with special attention paid to PMA clients.
Stay tuned.

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