Politics & Policy

Joe Sestak, $350K, Atheists, Ethics, And Wind Power

Joe Sestak has ventured, perhaps unwittingly, into a political twilight zone.

The Democrat congressman has come under heavy fire for a proposed $350,000 federal earmark that could violate House ethics rules against awarding tax dollars to for-profit companies.

The earmark, proposed but not present in the 2011 fiscal year budget, was requested by a group called The Thomas Paine Foundation, based near Philadelphia. The Foundation is part of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, a non-profit atheist advocacy group.

Here’s where things get really strange: The Paine Foundation requested the $350,000 grant to develop a prototype wind turbine “that could be floated offshore, utilizing recent developments in air bearing technology,” according to Sestak’s congressional website.

About the only thing that the atheist-affiliated Foundation and “air bearing technology” grants have in common is a man named Drew Devitt. Devitt is listed as the sole officer for the Foundation, and is also the head of two related for-profits: New Way Air Bearings, and New Way Energy, LLC.

In speaking with the Allentown Morning Call, Devitt was surprisingly candid about his motives. “One of the things Obama did for 2010 was to eliminate for-profit filing for line items, so obviously New Way wasn’t qualified,” said Devitt. “But Thomas Paine wasn’t for-profit, so it was eligible to file for a line item.”

The paper further reports, “[Devitt] said he intends to develop a wind-energy prototype to help educate people about wind energy’s benefits. He did not rule out a commercial application.”

The Paine Foundation’s pithy mission statement reads simply, “popularizing the ideas of Thomas Paine.” Evidently, a federal grant could also promote the work — and bottom line — of Drew Devitt’s for-profit energy firms.

By using a semantic maneuver, Drew Devitt’s would-be earmark raises questions about Sestak’s adherence to the House ban on for-profit earmarks, and the depth into which he and his staff research the legitimacy of taxpayer-funded grant requests.

Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter both rejected a similar earmark request before Sestak took up the cause.

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