One of Washington's most successful lobbying firms is on the verge of closing down. In November, FBI agents seized documents from the Northern Virginia offices of The PMA Group. There are questions regarding campaign contributions and the firm's ties to House Democrats such as John Murtha of Pennsylvania.
The PMA Group was founded 20 years ago by Paul Magliocchetti, who was a longtime aide to Murtha. It has specialized in lobbying the House Appropriations Committee, for which Murtha heads the subcommittee on defense. PMA also has ties to several other committee Democrats.
Over the past 10 years, the firm made nearly $114 million in lobbying fees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And its clients have done very well.
In fiscal 2008, clients got a total of 154 earmarks, or special spending provisions that appropriators wrote just for them.
But at the end of last year, two things happened. The firm's principals couldn't agree over financial terms as Magliocchetti moved toward retirement. PMA's lobbyists began heading for the exit, and FBI agents raided the office and carted off boxes of documents.
Now PMA is all but defunct, and some lawmakers are divesting themselves of contributions from PMA donors.
The case delivers a jarring blow to congressional Democrats, who won control of Capitol Hill in 2006 with a promise to "drain the swamp."
"This looks like the same old politics that the Republicans were playing, where they're playing pay-to-play — you give us a donation, we'll give you an earmark," says Keith Ashdown, who tracks legislative earmarks at the watchdog group Taxpayers For Common Sense.
Murtha has made a career of using earmarks to bring home jobs to his district in southwestern Pennsylvania, where many defense contractors have facilities. And his campaign war chest is top-heavy with contributions from PMA clients.
"Money sloshes around Washington. I think we all know that," Ashdown says. "What we have learned is that 14 House Democrats — PMA was their No. 1 contributor."
The company itself can't give donations. The money came from PMA's 35 employees and from its political action committee.
Among the PMA donors were two of the company's board members, who are friends of Magliocchetti from Florida, where he has a beach condo. In campaign reports, contributions from the two Floridians often appear to be coordinated — same day, same dollar amount, same recipient.
That could suggest PMA was making the contributions in their names, which would be illegal.
Jim Moran, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, wrote eight earmarks for PMA clients in the 2008 budget. Moran's office says he's closely following the situation but won't act "until there's clear evidence something improper occurred."
Another big beneficiary of PMA contributions is Pennsylvania Democrat Christopher Carney, a protege of Murtha's. His communications director says that "if the authorities find any donation to be improper, we will immediately give that contribution to charity."
House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren received $7,000 over the past decade from The PMA Group's PAC. The California Democrat has issued a statement saying that she is returning the money, but "without making any comment to the veracity of the allegations against PMA Group."
Murtha's office didn't respond to phone and e-mail messages Wednesday.
At the University of Maryland, professor Paul Herrnson has examined the interaction of lobbying and campaign money. He says many lobbyists will come to one conclusion: It pays to give.
"After all, if I am seen by a member of Congress who's in a powerful position as a member of their re-election team, they also might be more likely to consider me a member of their policy team," Herrnson says.
The PMA probe comes on the heels of a separate federal investigation in Murtha's home district.
Last month, agents from the FBI, the IRS and the Pentagon's inspector general raided the properties of Kuchera Industries, another recipient of earmarks from Murtha.