Rep. Norm Dicks is not alone in seeming to find a way around the House's new earmark restrictions. Seven other lawmakers from the 60-member House appropriations committee appear to be attempting to funnel money through nonprofits into the hands of businesses that the lawmakers previously had rewarded with earmarks, according to the Huffington Post Investigative...

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Year after year since 2004, Rep. Norm Dicks has landed earmarks for a tiny Port Townsend company, Intellicheck Mobilisa.

In all, Dicks, D-Bremerton, has sent more than $20 million to support the startup, including a no-bid $4.5 million contract last year for its proprietary Littoral Sensor Grid, which transmits data from a system of buoys.

Executives of the company have given $26,000 in campaign contributions to Dicks.

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The company might have felt its future in peril in March when Dicks, chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, declared that he and his colleagues “will not approve requests for earmarks that are directed to for-profit entities.” It was part of an effort to clean up Congress’ controversial practice of sending billions of dollars in no-bid, often-wasteful earmarks to constituents, some of whom are campaign donors.

Weeks later, however, Dicks did sponsor a $6.2 million earmark for the Littoral Sensor Grid, but this time he named the intended recipient as a nonprofit, the University of Washington.

Dicks is not alone in seeming to find a way around the House’s new earmark restrictions. Seven other lawmakers from the 60-member House appropriations committee appear to be attempting to funnel money through nonprofits into the hands of businesses that the lawmakers previously had rewarded with earmarks, according to the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

Dicks denied breaking the rule, saying any funds will go only to the UW.

Besides Dicks, the politicians include Rep. James Moran, D-Va., and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio — all three of whom made the requests within weeks of being cleared last February in a House ethics investigation into whether they had traded favors for campaign donations.

In all, the Investigative Fund found 18 instances in which the eight members are seeking to keep alive previous earmarks to businesses by listing a university, research center or other nonprofit as the recipient this time around.

Similar findings were reported Monday in The New York Times, which said it had identified “dozens” of such earmark requests, totaling $150 million, that would indirectly benefit profit-making companies.

Such conduct won’t improve public perceptions of the tainted earmark process, said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Trying to finesse your way around it with lawyerly excuses really feeds voter cynicism.”

What insiders predicted

Last March, when Dicks and House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., pledged to stop earmarks to businesses, others on Capitol Hill said the effort would have minimal impact. For every 10 earmarks, only one goes to a for-profit company. The rest are designated for organizations such as charities, nonprofits and educational institutions.

Insiders predicted that lawmakers, lobbyists and corporations would use these nonprofit earmarks to keep the money flowing to businesses.

That prediction is backed up by the Investigative Fund’s reporting.

Specifically, the Investigative Fund reviewed military spending-related requests from members of the House Appropriations Committee, comparing the description of last year’s for-profit earmarks with that of earmarks requested by some of the same lawmakers this year.

In the 18 cases, the descriptions of the projects being sought were similar, if not identical, to those funded the previous year; only the names of the recipients were changed — to nonprofit entities.

No-bid contract

Intellicheck Mobilisa, secured its first earmark in 2003 to provide free wireless Internet to passengers on certain Washington ferries.

That morphed into a system for transmitting security and environmental data collected from waterborne buoys in the Seattle area, for which the company received a $4.5 million no-bid contract last September.

The University of Washington has received $1 million in each of the last two years to provide assistance in the research, according to the contract.

Oceanographers and the Navy use the data. Dicks’ latest earmark request is for $6.2 million. A university spokesman, Bob Roseth, said he was unclear how money would be split between the university and the company. He also said Intellicheck Mobilisa wouldn’t necessarily be involved in the project next year, though he wouldn’t rule it out.

Asked how the company could be uninvolved in deploying its own trademarked technology — the Littoral Sensor Grid — Roseth replied, “that’s a fair question.”

A spokesman for Dicks recently said he wasn’t sure if the House ban would allow Intellicheck Mobilisa to be involved in the project anymore.

After a longer version of this story first appeared online, Dicks, through a spokesman, said Tuesday that his intention was for the funding to go to the University of Washington.

“Intellicheck Mobilisa will not participate in any aspect of this work in FY 2011,” Dicks said in a statement. “Any suggestion to the contrary is uninformed speculation that will be proven wrong if the appropriation request is accepted and signed into law.”

Dicks’ spokesman did not reply when asked how the company could be uninvolved in developing and deploying its own technology.

Descriptions of the two earmark requests — last year’s and the current one — are almost word for word, and don’t suggest any change in the goal of the project.

Appropriations Committee spokesman Ellis Brachman declined to discuss the Intellicheck Mobilisa earmark request or any others.

But he said each request would be reviewed individually. Obey, he said, “is very serious about the ban on for-profit entities.” But that task is daunting, if not impossible, given the sheer volume of requests for earmarks — tens of thousands of them amounting to some $16 billion in federal spending last year.

There is no comprehensive list of earmark requests, so it’s difficult to determine how many Congress members are still pursuing earmarks benefiting companies.

“No matter what they tell you, there is just no way they can police all that,” earmark critic Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican congressman, said. “They just don’t have the time or resources.”

Aides to the eight Congress members, when asked about continuing to request such earmarks despite the restrictions, told the Investigative Fund that the new rules have never been spelled out. The only guidance to date is a news release — the one released by Obey and Dicks in March, “Appropriations Committee Bans For-Profit Earmarks.”

As chairman of the defense-spending subcommittee, Dicks is in the position to enforce the new restrictions.

David Heath, now a reporter for the nonprofit Huffington Post Investigative Fund, co-wrote The Seattle Times investigative series on earmarks, The Favor Factory.

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