Flake threatens new assault on earmarks

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is threatening to renew his assault on defense earmarks if the ethics committee isn’t seriously investigating corruption allegations surrounding member-directed contracts.

“I’m frustrated that all of this is hanging out there,” Flake said. “There seems to be a new story every day, and we’re still going through the appropriations cycle as if nothing is amiss.”

Flake suspects that Democrats will prevent a thorough examination of earmarks in the defense-spending bill by restricting debate on the measure.

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He said he thinks Democrats are purposely moving the defense bill to the floor late this year so that it will arrive right before the recess. Members will then be pressed to approve it without full scrutiny so that they can leave town.

“We know the [Appropriations] Defense subcommittee is not vetting them,” Flake said of the earmarks.

He also suggested that if he offers a new resolution, it would relate to a controversy surrounding a defense contractor linked to an earmark request by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). The contractor is charged with doling out portions of the $8 million earmark as kickbacks to other defense companies linked to Murtha for work that was never done or not called for in the government contract.

Another defense contractor, Richard Ianieri, last week pleaded guilty to accepting $200,000 in kickbacks from another firm in a related case.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, dismissed any notion that appropriators were delaying the defense-spending bill to avoid earmark scrutiny. Instead, he argued that President Obama is taking a new approach to defense spending, stirring up broad debates with Congress and the public on such issues as whether the F-22 stealth fighter should receive more funding when the Pentagon thinks it’s ill-suited for current defense needs.

“The order of the spending bills has nothing to do with earmarks,” he said. “It’s up to each member to scrutinize the companies receiving their earmarks and defend and advocate for them. If it’s discovered that a crime was committed, the people involved should be prosecuted.”

Flake said he’s already warned Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) that he is growing increasingly impatient with the ethics committee because it hasn’t launched an investigative subcommittee to look into the controversy involving campaign contributions from PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm, and earmarks its clients received. When the ethics panel is seriously probing a matter, it traditionally has launched an investigative subcommittee. The FBI raided PMA’s offices earlier this year as part of a corruption investigation.

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An ardent anti-earmark foe, Flake spent the first half of the year trying to shake the ethics committee into investigating the PMA matter. Nine times over the course of five months, he offered a resolution that would have forced the ethics committee to investigate that matter and report back to the full House. Democratic leaders were successful in tabling it each time, but the resolution peeled off an increasing number of their members.

In the wake of that steady pressure, in early June, Hoyer offered and the House passed a resolution requiring the ethics committee to report on the status of any investigation into the PMA matter. One week later, the panel announced that it had previously authorized a “review of certain, specified allegations within the Committee’s jurisdiction that relate to the subject of” Hoyer’s resolution.

If Flake were serious about wanting the ethics committee to act immediately, he could file a complaint with the committee, one Democratic leadership aide countered. Whenever a sitting lawmaker formally files a complaint, the ethics committee must open an investigation.

Democrats also have given Flake multiple opportunities to strike earmarks or make his concerns known, the aide said. For example, Democrats allowed Flake to offer 11 amendments to the Financial Services spending bill, six on the Energy and Water measure, four on the Homeland Security bill, and one to the military construction and veterans’ affairs bill aimed at striking all earmarks from the measure. All of these efforts were voted down.

Flake took to the House floor Wednesday to register his objection to Democrats’ limitations on the number of amendments Republicans could offer to spending bills, arguing that Democrats were taking a “martial law” approach to the appropriations process and breaking decades of precedent that allowed the minority votes on most amendments they want.

Ethics committee action could be stymied by the sheer complexity of the matter and the high stakes involved. So far, the FBI’s investigation and prosecution of allegations involving defense earmarks has produced several threads involving multiple defense contractors in Pennsylvania and Florida.

The ethics probe also could be complicated by the simultaneous wide-ranging FBI investigation and the early prosecutions the Justice Department is pursuing. In the past, the ethics committee often has complied with DoJ requests to stop looking into a matter because it was interfering or could interfere with its own investigation. But the ethics committee is not obligated to comply with a DoJ stop-work request, and in this case, political pressure for action on the PMA matter is so strong, the panel may decide to ignore any request from Justice to stop looking into the matter.