Republican lobbying-ethics scandals helped convince voters to toss out the GOP and put Democrats back in control of the US House of Representatives. Now, with federal investigators examining the relationship between a lobbying firm and one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's long-time allies, Democrats can expect great scrutiny — not only for wrongdoing, but also for hypocrisy.
Capuano's ethics task force did nothing to change the "revolving door" of legislators and their staffs becoming lobbyists, despite calls to increase the waiting period. It did ultimately draft a requirement for lobbyists to disclose their "bundling" of contributions to candidates — a provision that, had it been in effect months ago, would have given a much greater sense of how dependent Washington lawmakers are on lobbying firms like PMA Group. Unfortunately, the House took so long with the reform legislation, rules for reporting the bundling were finalized only this week.
That scrutiny may touch upon Somerville congressman Michael Capuano, who spearheaded implementing ethics reform for the new Democratic leadership, and who has ambitions of succeeding Ted Kennedy in the US Senate — but who might find himself uncomfortably close to the flame, as this still-burgeoning scandal unfolds.
Recent reports say that, in November, federal prosecutors, working with the Department of Defense (DoD), raided PMA Group, a lobbying firm with ties to Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha. Murtha, who along with Capuano is among Pelosi's corps of trusted lieutenants, chairs the subcommittee that writes the DoD's annual budget-appropriations bill; he has used that perch to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to PMA clients.
PMA Group's roughly 35 lobbyists have showered Murtha — and other members of his committee — with tens of thousands in campaign contributions, suggesting the appearance of a "pay-to-play" exchange of campaign money for earmarks. Investigators also reportedly suspect that the firm improperly funneled contributions, by doling out the money to the individuals who wrote the checks.
This week, the scandal knocked PMA Group, by some measures one of the 10 biggest lobbying firms in Washington, out of business entirely (it announced it will cease operations by end of March). Two good-government watchdog types say they fully expect Murtha could be indicted.
Nobody knows how far the investigation might go. But there is reason to think that it could intersect with the biggest political question in Massachusetts: who will succeed Kennedy in the US Senate?
Capuano has made little secret of his interest in the seat; he is considered one of the most likely to run, along with Congressman Steve Lynch and Attorney General Martha Coakley. Although there is no suggestion that Capuano has done anything illegal, he could easily be drawn into the controversy.
PMA has been one of the congressman's biggest contributors, both to his campaign committee and to Mass PAC (political-action committee), the "leadership PAC" Capuano opened in 2006 to raise and distribute funds for other congressional candidates.
In fact, Capuano is one of the biggest recipients of PMA contributions, outside of those on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He also has added budget earmarks to the defense-appropriation bill for PMA clients.
But what could single out Capuano for particular criticism are his extremely close relationship with Murtha and his lead role in House Democrats' much-criticized ethics-reform initiative in 2007.
If Republicans think they can turn the Murtha scandal into a broad attack on House Democrats, Capuano would be a likely conduit. Pelosi, they could say, put a guy in charge of reform who really was knee-deep in lobbyist games — who was more interested in protecting himself and Murtha than in actually changing the culture of corruption in Washington.
Says one aide to Republican leadership on Capitol Hill: "As more reports come out about the scope of this scandal, I think you'll see Republican efforts pivoting to highlight it."
A look at Capuano's campaign reports suggests that, if the Republicans do go after him, he'll have provided them with live ammunition.
Although he's not a prolific fundraiser, Capuano still raised around $1.2 million during the 2007–'08 election cycle, the first since the Democrats re-gained the majority in the House. Roughly half came from PACs, including those from PMA Group and at least two of its clients, Parametric Technology and Textron, which received Capuano-sponsored earmarks in Murtha's appropriations bills. Individual contributions were dominated by lobbyists and their clients — including nearly $60,000 given by PMA Group lobbyists, associates, and family in those two years, according to a Phoenix review. That includes all four individuals reportedly under a particular microscope in the federal investigation.
Murtha came to Cambridge as the "special guest" for a Capuano fundraiser a month before the 2006 election. Capuano then backed Murtha's bid to become Majority Leader — an effort rejected by rank-and-file Democrats, in large part due to concerns that Murtha was vulnerable to charges the he was susceptible to outside influence. In 2008, when Murtha faced a tough re-election (after publicly suggesting his constituents might be too racist to vote for Barack Obama), Capuano gave him a maximum $5000 contribution from Mass PAC — one of just 19 campaigns he funded in that cycle.