Politics & Policy

Burned Critz

A former Murtha aide, running for Congress, picked up all his old boss's worst habits.

In some ways, Mark Critz is exactly the right man to continue the work of the late John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who spent most of his last years in Congress surrounded by allegations that he traded earmarks for donations. Critz was Murtha’s district director, and he shares many habits with his old boss: malodorous deals, explanations to the public that don’t add up, conflicting political and public-office loyalties, and a cynical sensibility that “the appearance of impropriety” ceased being a worry a long time ago.

#ad#The first questions about Critz’s honesty and propriety were raised by his work as a bookkeeper for a (now bankrupt) Johnstown firm, Parkins Concrete. According to the political blog PA2010, Critz testified that he worked part-time as the company’s bookkeeper and business manager from at least late 1997 until early 2000. During that time, the company racked up more than $13,000 worth of state tax violations and at least one federal tax lien of more than $127,000, according to public records. (One would expect the company’s bookkeeper to keep an eye on the payment of state and federal taxes, no?)

Critz claimed he stopped working for the company before joining Murtha’s staff, but it appears the two jobs overlapped for a year. Bloggers for The Pennsylvania Progressive called him out on the contradiction; the Critz campaign’s response was to change the candidate’s LinkedIn page.

As they were with Murtha himself, complaints to the House Ethics Committee about Critz are an old and familiar occurrence. In 2002, redistricting put Murtha up against another Democrat, Rep. Frank Mascara. Mascara contended that on several occasions, Murtha and Critz had performed official duties outside their own district. On April 6, 2002, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Mascara had filed a complaint with the ethics panel after Critz handed out Murtha’s biography and business card at a Waynesboro event; Critz’s actions, he contended, constituted “using government grants to campaign.”

Murtha’s defense may have been more troubling than the Mascara complaint itself. Murtha explained that Critz spent half of his time on the government payroll and half of his time on the campaign payroll. While many congressional staffers voluntarily (and sometimes involuntarily) use vacation time to do unpaid work for their bosses’ campaigns, an arrangement in which a staffer splits his time between government work, which is not supposed to be partisan, and campaign work, which obviously is, is ethically problematic, even if it isn’t strictly illegal.

As Murtha’s district director, Critz had a key role in handling requests for federal funding for local projects. Attention is already refocusing on his attendance at a 2005 meeting of defense contractors and lobbyists at which an earmark project that ultimately led to three criminal convictions was discussed. Critz attended half the meeting and expressed Murtha’s support for the project before departing.

One of the organizers of the meeting was defense contractor Richard Schaller, who was represented by the PMA Group, a lobbying firm founded by another former Murtha staffer. Never have earmarks-for-donations suspicions been stronger than in the case of the PMA Group. It had established itself as one of the nation’s premier lobbying organizations for defense contractors when its offices were raided by the FBI in November 2008. In 2007, Murtha had received more earmarks — money designated for projects in his home district — than anyone else in Congress, and an astonishing proportion of them went to PMA clients: at least 60 earmarks totaling $95.1 million in the 2006 defense-appropriations bill. Unsurprisingly, PMA clients were among Murtha’s biggest donors, contributing between $230,000 and $279,000 each two-year election cycle between 2000 and 2008.

#page#Schaller, who organized the meeting that Critz attended, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and five years’ probation for destroying documents, lying to a grand jury, and helping a supervisor at the research lab at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida steer contracts to Schaller’s company. According to documents obtained by Roll Call, Air Force lawyers had discouraged military officials from attending the meeting, arguing it was an inappropriate mixture of lobbying and congressional and contracting interests.

John Morgan, who writes the Pennsylvania Progressive blog, contends that Critz was an awful choice by the local Democratic party: “CQPolitics further says ‘But it is clear that Critz was a point person for Murtha on earmarks.’ Isn’t that called a bag man? Pennsylvania Democrats will rue the day they appointed Mark Critz to be their standard bearer for this seat. It’s already been a bad year for Democrats and Mark Critz is continuing the downhill slide.”

#ad#To his credit, Critz called upon the House Ethics Committee to release all documents relating to him. The panel has not yet done so.

Former state treasurer Barbara Hafer, who opposed Critz in the short selection process among local Democrats for the special election, tore into Critz: “This is a flawed candidate that has a lot of ethical problems, and he’s going to have to answer to them. . . . People want change. They want a straight talker. They want someone who’s not part of the backroom deals. That’s who he is — a legacy candidate who’s part of all the backroom deals.”

The Republican candidate in the special election, Tim Burns, faces a steep uphill climb between now and May 18. The special election will be held on the same day as a hotly contested Democratic senatorial primary between Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak, and with no comparable interest or drama on the Republican side. (Pat Toomey is expected to win the GOP Senate primary, and, barring some surprise turn of events, state attorney general Tom Corbett will win the gubernatorial primary.) Burns is competing in a district whose borders were drawn to protect Murtha, a district with 130,000 more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. Beyond that, while Murtha had to deal with allegations of corruption and the fallout from a statement in which he called his constituents racists, he still won by a comfortable margin, 58 percent to 42 percent, while McCain carried the district narrowly against Obama.

Perhaps voters in the district have grown used to allegations of influence-peddling, pay-to-play schemes, the steering of federal dollars to generous contributors, and disregard of tax law; Murtha’s label as one of Congress’s “most corrupt” never seemed to have political consequences for him. Already Critz and his campaign are defending the Murtha record as nothing but good old-fashioned constituent service: “Some may say Mr. Murtha fought too aggressively to bring economic development and jobs to western Pennsylvania. Mark disagrees, [and] he will continue to fight for jobs and economic development in Congress.”

Tim Burns will have to convince the voters of Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District that they deserve better, and that seems to be his campaign’s intention.

“This race is ultimately about fixing a broken system of government,” says Tad Rupp, Burns’s campaign manager. “It pits someone who’s a career bureaucrat against someone who’s a real reformer, a man who’s created 400 jobs in this district and around the country. The issues mentioned by another candidate on the Democratic side present serious allegations, and every indication is Critz will continue business as usual in Washington. Clearly, he’s going to vote in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi and keep things going in Washington the way they have been.”

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

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