Influence and Appropriations

By ALBERT McKEON Telegraph Staff Writer

It’s how a project can help New Hampshire and not how a potential donation can help their campaigns that motivates the state’s four federal legislators to direct tax dollars back home.

That’s what Sens. Judd Gregg and John Sununu and Reps. Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter say about the process known as “earmarking” and the corresponding practice of many lawmakers on Capitol Hill to accept money from the companies and organizations that benefit from those earmarks.

On paper, Shea-Porter, a Democrat who serves the 1st Congressional District, leaves no doubt about her stated conviction that campaign contributions won’t influence her decisions on requesting appropriations.

A review of public records by The Telegraph found that she accepted no donations from the benefactors of the New Hampshire-based projects she earmarked funding for in 2008 spending bills. The freshman legislator has a policy of not accepting money from those tied to earmarks, she said.

Hodes, a Democrat who represents the 2nd Congressional District, received a donation directly from an earmark recipient and two contributions from lobbyists who represented two recipients. But the freshman lawmaker said he returned the donations upon learning of their connection to earmarks he has supported. He also has a no-donation policy, he said.

Gregg and Sununu, Republicans who have been on the Hill longer than Hodes and Shea-Porter, have accepted donations over the years from companies, and their lobbyists, that landed money through the senators’ appropriations requests.

But Gregg and Sununu said campaign contributions have no bearing on what projects they choose to support. Instead, a project’s worth to New Hampshire – including its effect on the economy, environment, safety and transportation – determines whether they will seek federal funding for that work, they said.

“No contribution from any organization or group should make a difference in a vote any legislator takes,” Sununu said. “If there is someone concerned, or they believe they would be affected, they shouldn’t be running for public office.”

Added Gregg, who sits on the committee that approves earmarks in the Senate: “It has no relevance at all if you’re doing what is right for the state.”

Gregg, member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that despite all the money he has secured through earmarks in his three Senate terms for University of New Hampshire programs, it has had little sway on those who have benefited. He has never carried Durham in an election, he said.

The Telegraph reviewed the 112 individual appropriations requests the four lawmakers made last year and were approved in spending bills for 2008.

Members of Congress each year decide how tax dollars should be spent. They allocate funds to the various Executive Branch agencies – accepting and rejecting parts of the president’s requested budget – but also dividing money for their own states.

With 2008 appropriations, for instance, New Hampshire’s lawmakers secured funding for defense projects conducted by local industries – such as Malden Mills in Hudson – and programs for hospitals, colleges and environmental causes.

The Telegraph reviewed not only where the earmarks went, but whether any of the recipients, and any lobbyists working on their behalf, donated to the legislators’ political campaigns.

Unlike some legislators across the country who engage in the so-called “pay to play” realm of appropriations, New Hampshire’s lawmakers, by most measures, played without pay in this latest round of earmarking.

“It doesn’t seem to me that pay to play is a big issue,” Steve Ellis, vice president of the non-partisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said of The Telegraph’s review.

Stories abound about legislators who submit appropriations requests for companies and then routinely accept donations from them or their lobbyists, thus earning the designation as a lawmaker who wants pay to play.

The Associated Press recently listed a handful of lawmakers who backed earmarks for technology companies that, in turn, have made five-figure contributions to those legislators, continuing a practice on Capitol Hill that was previously harder to track because of looser rules.

Rep. David Hobson, for one, obtained a $2.4 million earmark from a company whose executives, families and consultants have donated $43,350 to the Ohio Republican’s campaign, according to research conducted by The Columbus Dispatch.

Defense industry executives and lobbyists are some of Rep. John Murtha’s biggest campaign donors. Murtha, a Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee, accepted more than $29,000 this campaign cycle from a technology firm that he helped land $8 million through earmarks.

In a project sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editors – one in which The Telegraph and two dozen other newspapers participated – one lobbyist said many lawmakers seek campaign donations from corporations and organizations with the implied promise of forwarding earmarks on their behalf.

Rules prohibit members of Congress from raising money in their offices, but two lobbyists told The Associated Press that some lawmakers will make an indirect reference about donations in a Capitol Hill meeting about an earmark or a campaign staffer will suggest it explicitly in a telephone call days later.

This revolving door of perceived influence and favors diminishes the good that the earmarks process can accomplish, and places all lawmakers under a microscope that fairly or unfairly questions their motivations, Ellis and others say.

The Telegraph used the microscope of public records to see where New Hampshire’s four legislators stood in last year’s appropriations process.

This study determined whether the four lawmakers accepted, this year or in years past, campaign donations directly from the recipients or indirectly from the lobbyists that represent some of these organizations on Capitol Hill.

None of the records searches indicated Shea-Porter had accepted money from anyone connected to earmarks.

Shea-Porter set this no-donation policy “to be perfectly clear to my constituents” that a project’s merits and not a gift qualified it for the appropriations process, she said.

Gregg received $10,000 and Sununu $5,500 from a political action committee representing BAE Systems employees for the 2008 election cycle. The Nashua-based facilities of BAE landed four defense contracts totaling more than $14 million through appropriations backed variously by the state’s four federal legislators. Gregg supported all four earmarks; Sununu three of them.

The two senators have accepted donations from BAE Systems PACs in the past.

Sununu also accepted a $1,000 donation this year and a $3,000 contribution in 2006 from a Gentex Corp. PAC. Through an earmark co-sponsored last year by Sununu and Shea-Porter, the Derry manufacturer received $2.4 million to work on a light vehicle intercom system for mine-resistant, ambush-protected military vehicles.

To determine the number of donations that Gregg, a third-term senator, and Sununu, a first-term senator up for re-election this year, have accepted from recipients of earmarks in other years, The Telegraph didn’t have much to work with other than a review by The Seattle Times. Before 2006, looser congressional rules made tracking appropriations requests to their sponsors harder to accomplish.

Last year, The Seattle Times reviewed only defense appropriations for fiscal year 2007 and then searched public records for campaign donations from those earmark recipients.

The study found Gregg received $140,450 from 2001 through 2007 from identifiable 2007 defense-related earmark recipients. In that same period, Sununu accepted $47,100 from 2007 defense-related earmark recipients, the study found.

To put those donations into perspective, the lawmaker who received the most money from companies and lobbyists that benefited from his 2007 earmarks was Murtha, who accepted $1.6 million during that seven-year stretch. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wa.) had the lowest figure recorded: $13,175.

Those defense appropriations were created and approved in 2006, before Hodes and Shea-Porter took office.

Hodes this year took a donation from employees of a rail line for which he secured funds, and accepted two donations from lobbyists who represented earmark recipients.

Hodes received $1,000 from a Genesse & Wyoming PAC – a political action committee of the rail line’s employees. The company itself secured a $400,000 appropriation, through Hodes’ office, to conduct railroad upgrades in North Country.

But Hodes returned that donation, he said. While Hodes said he can’t “individually force” the amount of change needed to make earmarking more balanced and fair, “I make sure I operate in the most transparent manner I can.”

And Hodes will also return the donations of two lobbyists after learning from The Telegraph of their connection to his appropriation requests, he said.

Their donations were revealed after The Telegraph looked behind the second door of the process – the one leading to the lobbyists who work Capitol Hill. They pitch their clients’ ability to complete appropriations work and are often paid well for their lobbying.

This search discovered Hodes, Gregg and Sununu had over the years accepted eight donations from lobbying firms that represented 2008 earmark recipients.

Patton Boggs LLP, which has worked on behalf of BAE Systems, gave the congressman $1,000 for the 2008 cycle, and Holland & Knight, which lobbied for Genesse & Wyoming last year, gave Hodes $1,500 for 2008.

Cassidy & Assoc., a lobbyist that represents Elliot Health System, which benefited from a Gregg-backed $195,000 earmark, gave $343 in 2004 and $419 in 2002 to the senator’s campaigns.

PMA Group, a firm that represents L-3 Communications, the recipient of a Sununu-sponsored $1 million defense appropriation, has twice donated to his Senate campaigns and had twice given to his campaigns for the House, when he represented the 1st District.

Click here to return to main earmarks page