A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Critz, Burns Swap False Charges

Falsehoods fly in the Pennsylvania 12th


In the final days of the May 18 special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, Democrat Mark Critz and Republican Tim Burns have escalated their attacks on each other in TV ads chock full of false and misleading claims.

Critz wrongly accuses Burns of wanting to "privatize Medicare and Social Security." But there is no evidence that Burns wants to "privatize" either program. The Democrat also claims that Burns "laid off his own workers … to get tax breaks for outsourcing." But there’s no evidence of that, either. Critz is trying to link two events that occurred after Burns sold his company.

Burns muddles his facts as well. He once again falsely accuses Critz of being investigated by a congressional ethics panel. He also wrongly states that his Democratic opponent "now supports Obama’s radical health care bill" and then compounds the falsehood by claiming Critz "flipped" after getting "big money" from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Burns also takes a Critz comment out of context to claim the Democrat apologized for running a false TV ad. The ad in question, though, was paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, not Critz, and the "apology" had nothing to do with the ad.

Please read on for a full analysis of both ads. 


This special election is being held to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha. Democrat Mark Critz’s ad began airing May 8 and claims to tell voters what "the difference" is between Critz, who was a Murtha staffer, and Republican Tim Burns. But the Critz campaign offers no evidence that Burns "wants to privatize Medicare and Social Security" — programs jealously guarded by senior citizens, who typically vote at rates higher than other age groups, as the Census found again in 2008. Nor is there evidence that Burns "laid off his own workers … to get tax breaks for outsourcing," as the TV spot says.

[TET ]

Mark Critz for Congress TV Ad: "The Difference"

Critz: I’m Mark Critz and I approve this message.

Announcer: The difference on Medicare: Mark Critz is opposed to cutting Medicare and impose the new health care law. Tim Burns wants to privatize Medicare and Social Security, cutting guaranteed benefits. The difference on jobs: Mark Critz wants to get rid of tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs overseas. Tim Burns laid off his own workers in Pennsylvania to get tax breaks for outsourcing. Tim Burns, out for himself, not us.


This isn’t the first time Critz, and Democrats, have claimed that Burns wants to link Social Security funds to private stock market accounts. And the truth is that Burns is on record saying he opposes such a move. Critz has made this claim on the campaign trail, while Burns spokesman Kent Gates has said, "Any effort to put Social Security in the stock market Tim is opposed to.”

The Critz camp’s support for this claim simply doesn’t back it up. The campaign continues to attempt to draw connections between Burns and organizations and politicians that support private accounts — but it still hasn’t produced evidence that Burns ever supported that position. For instance, it’s true that the House Conservatives Fund endorsed and contributed to Burns, and the group requires candidates to fill out a questionnaire on their views. But House Conservatives Fund spokeswoman Parker Poling told us the questionnaire "does not mention Social Security." (She would not give us the questionnaire itself.)

Critz’s camp also points to Burns’ comments at an April 28 candidate forum, in which he said in response to a question about protecting Medicare and Social Security: "I think we need to have all options on the table to make sure that these programs will survive for future generations without bankrupting this country." But saying all options are on the table doesn’t mean Burns backs any particular course of action — and one that he didn’t even mention. Gates, his spokesman, told us that Burns wants all options to be on the table "except private accounts." Perhaps Burns’ comments at the forum weren’t strong enough for the Critz camp, but Burns has not said that he wants to "privatize Social Security."

Another conservative group, FreedomWorks, also has endorsed Burns. The Critz camp sent us a FreedomWorks survey that asks whether candidates support the creation of private Social Security accounts. But Burns never filled out that survey, and, in fact, FreedomWorks isn’t using any such survey in this election.

"We’ve had surveys in the past with that question on it, but not since ’04," Rob Jordan, FreedomWorks’ vice president for federal and state campaigns, told us. The group doesn’t have a survey for this election cycle, he says. Burns "hasn’t signed anything for us." Jordan says the group endorsed Burns "based on his belief in limited government and the Constitution."

Gates asked us whether the Critz campaign could produce a signed copy of this supposed survey "because we never completed one." We asked the Critz camp that question, and we haven’t received a response.

What About Medicare?

As for the "privatizing" Medicare claim, Critz continues to make yet another leap of logic. The camp cites a Roll Call article that said the House Conservatives Fund contributed to candidates who "support values consistent with those espoused by the conservative Republican Study Committee." It then points to a New York Observer article that says the study committee supports a plan to give Medicare recipients vouchers to purchase private insurance. But the Critz camp offers no evidence that the House Conservatives Fund supports such a plan, or that it requires candidates to share that particular view. Nor does it provide any evidence that Burns does. When we asked Burns’ spokesman, Gates, he wasn’t sure what this claim was about. "No one has even discussed that," he said. 

We also called Poling at the House Conservatives Fund again, and she told us that "there has been no discussion between the House Conservatives Fund and the Republican Study Committee" on what should go into the former’s survey. "I’m sure this is some overlap," she says of the groups’ views. But, "There’s no question about Medicare or private insurance," she says, adding that the only query that comes close is an open-ended one that asks what candidates think should be done to reform the health care system. "We’ve gotten responses across the board," she says. "There’s no litmus test."

It boils down to this: We find no evidence Burns has ever expressed support for "privatizing" Medicare, either publicly or privately, contrary to the claim in Critz’s ad.

Layoffs for Tax Breaks?

Critz’s ad goes on to claim that Burns "laid off his own workers in Pennsylvania to get tax breaks for outsourcing.” But there’s no evidence that Burns laid off anybody in order to secure a tax break.

The Critz campaign attempts to make this false assertion by linking two unrelated events that occurred after Burns sold his prescription software company. Burns announced the sale of his company, TechRx, to NDCHealth Corp. in 2002, and at the time said there may be a few layoffs in the Pittsburgh area, where the company had about 100 employees. NDCHealth laid off 58 managers companywide — it has several other offices outside Pennsylvania. Burns spokesman Gates, however, says: "There were no job losses in southwestern Pennsylvania," and he says the company expanded after the merger. He calls this claim "a clear and blatant lie."

It’s true that Burns continued as an executive of NDCHealth after the sale for part of 2003, a tax year in which NDCHealth took advantage of an existing tax rule to defer paying U.S. taxes on some income earned overseas. But Critz has failed to establish that Burns himself laid off any former employees in the first place, much less that he acted to "get tax breaks."

Ethics, Taxes and ‘Big Money from Pelosi’

The Burns ad, which first aired May 11, starts with a summary of allegations: “We’ve all heard the stories about Mark Critz. Ethics investigation. Unpaid taxes. How Critz flipped and now supports Obama’s radical health care bill after getting big money from Pelosi.” Our summary, in order: Misleading, not in dispute, and false.

[TET ]

Tim Burns for Congress Ad: "Witness"

Burns: I’m Tim Burns and I approve this message.

Announcer: We’ve all heard the stories about Mark Critz. Ethics investigation. Unpaid taxes. How Critz flipped and now supports Obama’s radical health care bill after getting big money from Pelosi. The latest? After a Critz attack ad was exposed as false, Critz was forced to publicly apologize.

Critz: I apologize. I didn’t mean to do that.

Announcer: Barbara Hafer warned us about Critz’s ethics problems, and boy was she right. [/TET]

We’ve dealt with the “ethics investigation” in a past article. The ethics investigation was falsely described in a previous Burns ad, and its inclusion here is misleading. As we’ve noted, Democratic congressman John Murtha was the subject of the investigation and the Office of Congressional Ethics cleared him by a unanimous vote. Critz, a former Murtha aide, was interviewed once for a half hour during the Murtha investigation and the final ethics report made only a passing — and incorrect — mention of “Mark Chris,” spelling his name wrong.

The allegation that Critz “flipped and now supports Obama’s radical health care bill” is not true. Although he did not take a position on the health care bill during the primary, Critz ultimately came out against it and has run several ads stressing his opposition. So, how can Burns say that he “flipped and now supports" the health care law? Burns spokesman Gates points to a May 5 debate. Critz said in that debate that he would not vote to repeal the health care law, but instead would work to “fix” it. Here is his full response: “We work with what we have and we look forward. We try to fix what we have instead of going backwards.” That’s not the same as supporting the law. It’s the same flawed logic that the National Republican Congressional Committee is using against Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama, who voted against the bill but won’t join Republican calls to repeal it.

On the unpaid taxes, Critz has acknowledged that he was an officer in a company owned by an in-law that later went bankrupt and he has not disputed that it owed federal taxes. No disagreement there.

Now, about that “big money” from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It’s no secret to anyone in Western Pennsylvania with a television that both candidates are getting “big money” from the national parties. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the NRCC are heavily invested in the race. The NRCC so far has spent $958,896 to support Burns, while the DCCC has spent $937,297 to help Critz, according to independent expenditure data provided by the Federal Election Commission. Most of that money went for attack ads. Individually, Critz has raised $748,000 for his campaign, as of April 28. How much came from Pelosi? Her campaign committee gave Critz $2,000 on March 31. In addition to Pelosi’s contribution and the DCCC spending, Gates, of the Burns campaign, points to an April 20 fundraiser in Washington that was hosted by the DCCC. The invitation lists Pelosi, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and the Pennsylvania Democratic delegation as the featured guests. Congressional party committees typically hold such events attended by party leaders in Washington. In fact, House Minority Leader John Boehner and other top GOP leaders were the featured guests at a similar fundraiser for Burns on the same day. Politico wrote about the dueling Capitol Hill fundraisers.

So, it’s wrong to say that Critz "flipped" on health care because he got “big money from Pelosi,” since he still doesn’t support the health care law. And it’s disingenuous to suggest that Pelosi and the DCCC are doing anything more for Critz than what the NRCC and Boehner are doing for Burns.

‘Apology’ Not Accepted

Lastly, the Burns ad says that Critz was "forced to publicly apologize" for a campaign ad that we here at FactCheck.org determined was “misleading.”

The Burns campaign shows images from the disputed ad, with this label: “Actual Critz Attack Ad.” Critz is then heard saying, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to do that.” First, the misleading ad was actually run by the DCCC, not Critz. Second, Critz wasn’t apologizing for the ad, says Critz spokeswoman Holly Shulman. The apology was offered during a candidates’ forum on April 28 in Johnstown, Pa., where Critz mistakenly said that Burns signed a pledge to support the FairTax. Shulman said Critz misspoke and that he was referring to the no-tax-increase pledge sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform. (You can see him stumble at about 27 minutes into this video of the forum, and then apologize near the end at 42 minutes.)

It’s not much of an apology, though. Here’s the text (and a video clip) of his statement, which contains a clause (in italics) that renders the apology moot: “If I’ve misstated Mr. Burns’ position on something then I apologize. I didn’t mean to do that. It was my understanding that he did support the FairTax and if that’s wrong I apologize.” It’s not wrong. Burns did support the FairTax. He said in a May 2009 interview that he would “love to ultimately see the FairTax implemented,” but he didn’t think it was practical to implement it quickly.

Burns is now unequivocally saying that he does not support the FairTax and has accused Critz of lying about it and apologizing for it, as this video clip shows. That raises the question: Isn’t Burns the one who has “flipped" on a major issue? Gates says no. He also says, “The truth has gone out the window a long time ago in this race” — blaming the Democrats, of course.

We agree that the truth has “gone out the window,” but there is plenty of blame to go around.

— by Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson


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