Despite request, Murtha continues to push back against retirement rumors

Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) campaign has asked the Democrats’ reelection arm to write a memo detailing how he can use funds in his campaign account if he retires.

The request from an assistant to Murtha’s Chief of Staff John Hugya was made in late October, after the Appropriations subcommittee Murtha chairs passed the defense-spending bill.

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Word of the request has made its way around Democratic circles in recent weeks and is spurring talk that Murtha is planning to leave at the end of this Congress. A House ethics investigation of Murtha and the longtime lawmaker’s recent health problems have only escalated the talk.

Murtha’s office said the congressman has no plans to retire.

“Congressman Murtha is not retiring and looks forward to winning reelection to a 20th term in 2010,” Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said in response to questions about the memo.

The office acknowledged asking the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for the advice, but explained that it did so only in response to a constituent who assumed that members could put their remaining campaign funds to personal use when they retired.

“Our staff confirmed with both the [Federal Election Commission] and the DCCC that this was not the case, and we relayed this information to the constituent,” Mazonkey said.

DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider also said that the request was prompted by a constituent inquiry, not retirement considerations.

“Months ago, the chairman’s office requested general information for a constituent about how members of Congress could spend campaign funds,” Crider said. “A DCCC staff member provided that information to the office.”

The back-and-forth has been a hot topic in Democratic circles in recent weeks as the party braces itself for a possible wave of retirements ahead of what looks to be a difficult election for Democrats. Rep. Bart Gordon’s (D-Tenn.) retirement announcement on Monday only exacerbated those Democratic fears.

Murtha’s explanation seemed strained to some observers, who said his office could have simply told the constituent that personal use of campaign money is prohibited when a member retires.

Federal election law allows funds in campaign committee accounts to be donated to the party’s reelection coffers, spent on individual federal, state and local races or donated to charity. The rules are less clear when it comes to leadership political action committees, although most retiring lawmakers hold onto the money, continue donating to colleagues or give it to charity.

“It would be very troubling, in my view, if federal elected officials were permitted to build up war chests from donors with business before them knowing full well that they were going to use those contributions for personal use when they retire,” said Paul Ryan, an election-law attorney at the Campaign Legal Center. “There would be a very serious threat of corruption of these individuals if that were the case.”

Murtha’s hospitalization for gall bladder problems over the weekend, which caused him to cancel an Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on security in Afghanistan, only fanned the flames of those predicting the 40-year House veteran’s departure. It also gave critics in his party new ammunition against him — that his age and ethics problems are liabilities the party can’t afford to keep around right now.

Murtha has been under the ethics microscope since Democrats won back the majority in 2006. The scrutiny has been particularly harsh since the beginning of 2009, when reports surfaced that the FBI had raided PMA Group, a lobbying firm with strong ties to Murtha. PMA Group specializes in lobbying for defense companies, and a large portion of its clients are clustered in and around Murtha’s district.

When Murtha faced a tougher-than-expected reelection campaign last year after calling western Pennsylvania a “racist area” and “really redneck,” PMA Group employees and clients donated $110,000 to Murtha for the final weeks of his campaign.

Despite the late scare, Murtha won reelection with a solid 58 percent of the vote even though Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried Murtha’s district in the 2008 presidential race with 49 percent of the vote.

Murtha has attracted three opponents for 2010, including a Democratic primary challenger.

The 2008 Republican nominee, Bill Russell, is running again this year, along with wealthy businessman Tim Burns. Russell spent $3.5 million trying to oust Murtha in 2008, and had plenty of help from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which flooded the district with ads late in the campaign.

Ryan Bucchianeri, Murtha’s Democratic primary challenger, also could cause him headaches. He’s a 34-year-old former field-goal kicker for the Naval Academy’s football team, and has been outspoken about his commitment to restoring ethical integrity in the western Pennsylvania district.

Bucchianeri’s youthful appearance stands in contrast to Murtha, 77, a former Marine who is serving his 19th term in the House.

Despite the crowded field of challengers, Murtha has continued to fundraise at the same levels he has in previous elections.

As of the latest available election filing, Murtha has $444,900 in his campaign reelection committee account, roughly the same amount he had at the same point during the last cycle. His leadership political action committee had $109,617 as of the latest filing, down roughly $63,000 from the October 2007 filing.

Murtha repeatedly has said he does not believe he is the focus of the FBI’s probe into PMA Group, and that he has not had any contact with Justice Department investigators or prosecutors.

His Appropriations Committee colleague, Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), and Visclosky’s chief of staff both have received subpoenas for information and testimony about their relationship with PMA Group.

In October, The Washington Post reported the House ethics panel was investigating half the members of the House defense spending subcommittee, including Murtha, the panel’s chairman. The probe is looking at the earmarks appropriators obtained for PMA Group clients and the campaign donations the lawmakers received from the lobbyists and their clients. The probe was revealed in an internal panel document leaked to the Post.