ARI SHAPIRO, host:
One of Washington's most successful lobbying firms might soon close its doors. The firm is called the PMA Group. In November the FBI raided the PMA's Virginia offices. Now there are questions about some of the firm's campaign contributions, and about its ties to a powerful House Democrat, John Murtha of Pennsylvania. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: The PMA Group was founded 20 years ago by Paul Magliocchetti. He had worked for John Murtha. The firm has specialized in lobbying the House Appropriations Committee. Murtha chairs the subcommittee on defense there, and PMA has ties to other committee Democrats.
The firm made nearly $114 million in lobbying fees over the past 10 years -that's according to the Center for Responsive Politics - and its clients have done very well. In fiscal 2008, they got a total of 154 earmarks, special spending provisions that appropriators wrote just for them.
But at the end of 2008, two things happened. Within PMA, the principals couldn't agree over financial terms as Magliocchetti moved toward retirement. PMA's lobbyists began heading for the exit. And in November, FBI agents came into the office to cart off boxes of documents. Now PMA is all but defunct, some lawmakers are divesting themselves of contributions from PMA donors, and the case delivers a jarring blow to congressional Democrats. After all, they won control of Capitol Hill in 2006 as they promised to drain the swamp of Republican corruption.
Keith Ashdown tracks legislative earmarks at the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Mr. KEITH ASHDOWN (Taxpayers for Common Sense): Well, this looks like the same old politics that the Republicans were playing, where they were playing the system of pay-to-play - you give us a donation, we'll give you an earmark.
OVERBY: Murtha has made a career of using earmarks to bring home jobs. Many defense contractors have facilities in his district in southwestern Pennsylvania. It's also true that his campaign war chest is top-heavy with contributions from PMA clients. Again, Keith Ashdown.
Mr. ASHDOWN: Money sloshes around Washington. I think we all know that. What we have learned is that 14 House Democrats - PMA was their No. 1 contributor.
OVERBY: And that's where one of the problems starts. The corporation itself can't give. The money came from PMA's 35 employees and from its political action committee. Among the PMA donors were two of its board members - friends of Magliocchetti actually, down in Florida where he has a beach condo.
In campaign reports, contributions from the two Floridians often appear to be perfectly coordinated - same day, same dollar amount, same recipient. That could suggest that the firm was making the contributions in their names, which would be illegal. And that's caused some Democrats to worry.
Jim Moran from Northern Virginia wrote eight earmarks for PMA clients in the 2008 budget. His office says he's closely following the situation with the contributions, but he won't act "until there's clear evidence something improper occurred."
Another big beneficiary of PMA contributions is Pennsylvania's Christopher Carney, a protégé of Murtha's. His communications director says "if the authorities find any donation to be improper, we will immediately give that contribution to charity."
Zoe Lofgren of California chairs the House Ethics Committee. The PMA Group's PAC gave her $7,000 over the past decade. She has issued a statement that she's 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 yesterday.
At the University of Maryland, Paul Herrnson has examined the interaction of lobbying and campaign money. He says many lobbyists will come to one conclusion: It pays to give.
Mr. PAUL HERRNSON (University of Maryland): After all, if I am seen by a member of Congress who's in a powerful position as a member of their reelection team, they also might be more likely to consider me a member of their policy team.
OVERBY: The PMA probe is unconnected - so far at least - to a federal investigation in Murtha's home district. Last month, agents from the FBI, IRS and the Pentagon's inspector general raided the properties of Kuchera Industries, another recipient of earmarks from Murtha.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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