Questions have been raised about whether some PMA-related campaign contributions were actually given by the people listed as donors. For example, thousands of dollars in contributions to Dicks, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and other lawmakers came from a sommelier and a golf-club employee who were identified as PMA officials on some campaign-finance reports.

Share story

Congressman Norm Dicks has never been shy about accepting campaign donations from favor seekers.

Now the FBI is investigating one of Dicks’ most generous donors — the powerhouse lobbying firm PMA Group.

Questions have been raised about whether some PMA-related campaign contributions were actually given by the people listed as donors. For example, thousands of dollars in contributions to Dicks, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and other lawmakers came from a sommelier and a golf-club employee who were identified as PMA officials on some campaign-finance reports. The investigation has prompted some lawmakers to distance themselves from the PMA-related contributions. Murray said she has donated $3,500 of her questionable contributions to Food Lifeline, a local charity. Other lawmakers have talked about doing something similar.

Dicks is waiting to see if the FBI finds any criminal wrongdoing before making a decision on his contributions. “If any of those contributions are judged improper, it’d be his intention to give them back,” said Dicks’ spokesperson George Behan.

The FBI raided PMA’s office suite in Arlington, Va., last November, part of an investigation into possible improper campaign donations, according to media reports.

The firm’s founder Paul Magliochetti, who recently retired, is a former aide of the House subcommittee on defense spending, which decides which earmarks get inserted in the defense bill. Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha is the current chairman and a long time member.

The PMA Group touts a long list of clients who’ve gotten defense “earmarks,” often no-bid contracts that federal agencies feel pressure to award companies selected by individual lawmakers. In the 2008 defense bill alone, lawmakers gave PMA clients 172 earmarks. Some of those clients had numerous lobbying firms working on their behalf.

Many of the lawmakers sponsoring those earmarks received generous political contributions from donors with PMA ties. Since 2003, individuals or groups with PMA ties gave more than $2.5 million to the campaigns of 165 members of Congress, according to a Seattle Times’ analysis.

Dicks, a Bremerton Democrat, was fourth highest on the list, receiving a total of $84,000. PMA’s political-action committee also donated $5,000 to the charity Defenders of Wildlife on Dicks’ behalf. As the second ranking Democrat on Murtha’s subcommittee, Dicks wields substantial influence over defense spending.

In the past two years, Dicks pushed for nine earmarks worth $20 million for PMA clients. Those clients include defense contractors with satellite offices in Bremerton, such as 21 Century Systems, Advanced Acoustic Concepts and Concurrent Technologies. Each company is involved in defense technology.

Those companies’ employees or political-action committees have given large campaign contributions to Dicks. Each also have offices in Murtha’s district.

Murray, a member of the powerful Senate appropriations committee, ranked 25th on the PMA contribution list, receiving $26,000 in donations.

Because Senate disclosure rules are more lax than in the House, it’s difficult to tell exactly how many earmarks Murray championed for PMA clients. Based on news releases, she requested and got at least two earmarks worth $4.8 million for PMA clients last fiscal year.

Some donations appear questionable

Some of PMA’s campaign donations, including some to Dicks and Murray, appear questionable.

For example, in federal campaign-finance reports, lawmakers at times listed John Pugliese of Fernandina Beach, Fla., as a PMA consultant. He has given $77,000 to lawmakers since the summer of 2005. Yet Pugliese was never registered as a lobbyist. He is a former sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla., according to the restaurant.

Likewise, several lawmakers’ campaign-finance-disclosure forms listed Jon C. Walker of Fernandina Beach, Fla., as an associate of PMA Group or as a partner for Evas Worldwide, a PMA client. However, Walker appears to work at the Amelia Island Golf Club.

“I have no idea who Mr. Walker is,” George Reenstra, president of EVAS Worldwide, told the newspaper The Hill after reviewing the campaign-finance records.

Walker was also listed on some campaign-finance forms as working in hospitality and guest services at the Ritz-Carlton.

The pair donated $4,000 to Dicks’ campaign, which listed both men as employees of the Ritz-Carlton. On May 25, 2006, their $1,000 contributions came on the same day as PMA employee contributions totaling $9,600.

Behan said at the time there was nothing suspicious about the donations.

Pugliese and Walker also gave $1,000 donations to Murray on June 30. PMA associates gave Murray a total of $13,000 that day. Murray’s campaign listed Pugliese as an employee of the Ritz-Carlton and Walker as an employee of Amelia Island Golf Club.

A spokesman for PMA Group told The Washington Post that Pugliese and Walker are on the PMA board of directors. Both men are managing members with Magliochetti of a new restaurant venture called Firenze Partners, according to public documents. The venture is headquartered at Magliochetti’s condo on Amelia Island.

Numerous attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

What’s unusual about PMA is that people with modest means and modest titles gave so much, since far less than 1 percent of Americans give more than $200 to a political campaign, said Meredith McGehee at the advocacy group Campaign Legal Center.

“What are they investing in?” McGehee asked.

Giving a collection of donations to a lawmaker on the same day is a common but controversial practice known as “bundling,” which critics argue is an attempt to circumvent individual limits on campaign contributions of $2,400 per election.

“Many people have discovered that if you give generously in campaigns that the doors on Capitol Hill swing open to you. Not only do you get access but in some cases it seems you get earmarks,” said McGehee.

The sheer volume of donations from PMA lobbyists raises questions. For example, Sandra K. Welch retired from PMA two years ago as a lobbyist with expertise in education. Her husband was a police officer in Fairfax County, Va. They now live in a Florida home for which they paid about $197,000, according to real-estate records.

Between 2003 and 2006, the couple contributed $121,000 to congressional campaigns as well as $5,000 annually to PMA’s political-action committee. From 2001 to 2006, the couple contributed $12,300 to Dicks’ campaign, with the Fairfax police officer listed in campaign-disclosure records as a PMA consultant.

Welch, reached at home, said she did not feel comfortable talking about PMA Group.

Legislation died

Legislation to address the brewing PMA controversy died in Congress this month.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., made two attempts to have the House ethics committee investigate the PMA contributions. Democrats, including Dicks, voted that down. Broader anti-earmark efforts in Congress were also unsuccessful.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tried to strip 14 PMA earmarks out of the $410 billion spending bill. Again Democrats, including Murray, defeated the measure.

Murray’s spokesperson explained the senator’s vote by saying that it’s lawmakers, not lobbyists, who sponsor earmarks.

“Just like we wouldn’t expect a senator from Oklahoma or Arizona to know the needs of Walla Walla or Bellingham, Senator Murray is not going to question the needs of another state or tell another member that she knows their communities better than they do,” said Alex Glass, Murray’s communications director.

The FBI investigation could play a critical role in the ongoing political struggle over earmarks. Scandals over Republican earmarks helped usher in Democratic control of Congress. Voter disgust over powerful interests ruling Washington was a theme of President Obama’s campaign.

Now, though, Democrats have become the defenders of earmarks. Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said that’s risky because earmarks “are a petri dish for corruption.”

Murray pledges to help Obama make earmarks more transparent. A small but growing number of Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold, are joining with Republicans to do away with earmarks. While the fight over earmarks gets a lot of publicity, Dicks’ spokesman Behan said Congress still has a fundamental responsibility to address the needs of their constituents.

Asked if a scandal over PMA could change the dynamics of the debate, Behan said he didn’t want to speculate.

“It’s really hard to know where this is going,” he said.

David Heath: or dheath@seattletimes.com