A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Ethics Attack Misses Mark

In the Pennsylvania 12th, Republican Tim Burns wrongly claims Democrat Mark Critz was investigated by the congressional ethics office.


Summary

Ethics increasingly has become an issue in the final weeks of the hotly contested special election in the 12th congressional district in Pennsylvania. Republican candidate Tim Burns has been running a television ad saying Democrat Mark Critz “was investigated by the congressional ethics office.” That is simply not true. Critz’s former boss, the late Rep. John Murtha, was investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), but the charges were dismissed for a lack of evidence. The National Republican Congressional Committee is now running an ad about Critz’s “disturbing pattern on ethics.” This ad is deceptive and builds on the misperception created by the Burns campaign that Critz was the target of an investigation.

For his part, Critz responds to these attacks on his ethics by running an ad that claims Burns has gone “too far” by “attacking John Murtha’s memory.” But Burns has done nothing of the kind. It wouldn’t be politically smart to attack a popular former congressman who just died, and Burns doesn’t do it. The attacks are squarely aimed at Critz, not Murtha – and therein lies the problem, for both sides.

Analysis

In an ad called “Clear Choice” that first aired April 27, the Burns campaign says: “Critz was investigated by the congressional ethics office.” An image of Critz is superimposed on a photo of the Office of Congressional Ethics, making it look like Critz is standing at the door. The photo — like the claim that Critz was investigated — is phony.

Critz was not investigated by the congressional ethics office.

[TET ] Announcer: Two candidates, Mark Critz and Tim Burns. Tim’s a successful businessman whose created 400 jobs and Tim signed a pledge to oppose all tax increases. Mark Critz? A Washington bureaucrat bankrolled by Pelosi. Critz was investigated by the Congressional Ethics Office. And Critz was in charge of the finances for a company caught not paying their taxes. Two candidates, one clear choice.

Tim Burns: "I’m Tim Burns and I approve this message." [/TET]

When asked to back up its claim, the Burns campaign provided a link to a February report from the Office of Congressional Ethics that clearly states that Murtha was the subject of the investigation, not Critz. The report says: “The allegations that were the subject of this review concern Representative John Murtha, a Member of the United States House of Representatives from the 12th District of Pennsylvania.” The Office of Congressional Ethics is a relatively new investigative body that reviews complaints and recommends action to the longstanding House ethics committee, known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The OCE investigated whether Murtha accepted campaign contributions from lobbying clients of PMA Group Inc., in exchange for federal grants inserted into appropriations bills. The grants are known as “earmarks,” because lawmakers set aside, or earmark, money for specific projects. Murtha, as former chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, was legendary for obtaining earmarks for businesses in his district – which more often than not would contribute to his campaign. But the OCE found no evidence that Murtha sponsored the earmarks in exchange for contributions, and it voted unanimously to dismiss the case against him.

Interviewed, But Not Investigated

So, how can the Burns campaign make such a claim against Critz? Like a lot of falsehoods, this allegation begins with a kernel of truth that is then distorted. The ethics report mentions Critz by name only once (and incorrectly as "Mark Chris") and a few other times by title as Murtha’s “district director.” The report says that the district director would receive earmark requests and forward them to Washington, where they would be reviewed by staff for final recommendations and approval. Tad Rupp, a Burns spokesman, said that Critz was interviewed during the course of the Murtha investigation. But being interviewed is one thing, and being investigated is quite another.

The Burns campaign provided one other piece of evidence that it says proves Critz was investigated: a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from the 2002 primary when Murtha was running against a fellow Democrat, Rep. Frank Mascara. But the evidence fails to support the claim. The newspaper said Mascara filed an ethics complaint alleging that Critz performed campaign duties while on the government payroll. Specifically, Mascara’s complaint was based on a Feb. 21, 2002, appearance by Critz at an event in Waynesburg, Pa., the Post-Gazette reported. Murtha told the newspaper that half of Critz’s time was devoted to the campaign (and paid for by the campaign) and half of his time was spent working for the government – a claim supported by the record. Critz was a part-time employee at the time of the event, according to LegiStorm, a nonpartisan website that provides information on congressional salaries. There is no evidence that the ethics panel investigated Mascara’s complaint.

True, But Misleading

Less than a week after the Burns campaign aired its ad attacking Critz’s ethics, the Republican National Congressional Committee launched a TV ad May 1 on what it called Critz’s “disturbing pattern on ethics.”

[TET ] Announcer: Mark Critz’s disturbing pattern on ethics. As a staffer, Critz was questioned as part of a House ethics investigation. Now, Critz takes over a third of his campaign cash from those who relied on federal earmarks Critz helped secure. And a business Critz helped manage was cited for not even paying all of its taxes. Mark Critz. Questionable ethics. Another vote for Nancy Pelosi. Putting the liberal agenda before Pennsylvania.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET]

Unlike the Burns ad, the NRCC accurately describes Critz’s role in the Murtha investigation. But then the ad does something that the ethics office did not do: link the earmarks with campaign contributions. The ad says: “Critz was questioned as part of a House ethics investigation. Now, Critz takes over a third of his campaign cash from those who relied on federal earmarks that Critz helped secure.” The Burns campaign is relying on a Washington Post article that analyzed Critz’s campaign contributions from executives and political action committees of companies that received earmarks from Murtha. But did Critz help secure the earmarks, and were the contributions payback? That’s what the NRCC wants you to believe, yet there is no evidence to make that link.

There are two questions that need to be answered: How involved was Critz in the earmarking process, and did his involvement raise legitimate ethical concerns?

Kent Gates, a Burns spokesman, said Critz was heavily involved in the earmarking process and he cites Critz as his chief witness. Critz has run campaign ads taking credit for helping to create jobs in the district while he was Murtha’s economic development coordinator – a position he held from Dec. 1, 2006, until May 31, 2007, according to LegiStorm. Murtha took credit for creating jobs through the earmarking process. “I’m taking him at his word,” Gates said of Critz. “He’s running a commercial saying he has created thousand of jobs as Jack Murtha’s economic development director. Either the entire premise of his campaign is wrong or he was the key staffer in this whole [earmarking] process.”

The ethics report makes it clear that Critz was involved in the decision-making process, but others had direct control. One Murtha staffer told OCE investigators on Nov. 2, 2009, that two people in Murtha’s office were "directly responsible for the (earmarking) process." The witness, whose name was not disclosed, identified those people as himself and Charles Horner, a Murtha staffer and retired Air Force general. (A summary of the interview with the unnamed staffer can be found on pages 142 through 144 of this report released by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to close its investigation of the PMA Group.) By "directly responsible," the witness means that these two staffers were ultimately responsible for recommending what earmarks would be funded and that Murtha would routinely approve those recommendations without making changes. We don’t know the name of the second staffer who was directly responsible for the earmarks, but we do know that it wasn’t Critz. How? The unnamed staffer told investigators (on page 142) that he "speaks with Mark Chris [sic] in the district office when seeking input from the district." Critz’s campaign manager, Mike Mikus, confirmed that "Mark Chris" was in fact Mark Critz.

Separately, Murtha’s chief of staff told investigators that requests for earmarks that originated in the district would be reviewed first by the district director (Critz) and then referred to Washington, where they would go through several steps before gaining approval.

Here’s how Murtha’s chief of staff described the process to investigators:

Office of Congressional Ethics: After (the district) review, the request is sent to the Washington DC office for further review and assessment. Anything dealing with appropriations is sent to DC. The witness stated that he wants the DC staff to discuss appropriations matters with the Congressman. He also stated that most requests go to DC after his review, except those that are patently insufficient or unclear. Anything dealing with defense appropriation requests goes straight to DC. Once there, the request is reviewed by a Legislative Assistant and an Appropriations Committee staffer.

So, Critz had a role in the process, but he wasn’t "the decider," to quote a former president. The question then becomes: was Critz’s work on earmarks unethical? The OCE — which has been praised for its tough investigations — found no evidence of it, at least as it relates to earmarks awarded to clients of the PMA Group.

There is no doubt that there is a relationship between Murtha’s office and the defense industry in Murtha’s district. The ethics investigation clearly showed that companies believed that giving campaign contributions would help them win earmarks. Critz is now benefiting from that relationship. But the NRCC failed to establish “a disturbing pattern on ethics.”

Faulty ‘Memory’

Critz has lobbed false attacks right back at Burns. In an ad called “Memory” that first aired April 30, Critz accuses Burns of attacking Murtha’s memory in his "Clear Choice" ad.

[TET ] Mark Critz: I’m Mark Critz. And now Tim Burns is attacking John Murtha’s memory. Tim, go ahead and attack me. But you’ve gone way too far when you attack someone who’s no longer here to defend themselves. You should get your facts straight. I’m pro-life, pro-gun, and I left that company because of what they were doing. But I don’t apologize for going to work there. I was trying to save jobs. I approve this message because that’s the difference. I’m fighting to keep jobs here. Tim Burns outsourced jobs overseas. [/TET]

Critz uses a clip from Burns’ ad that shows the Office of Congressional Ethics and then says, “Tim, go ahead and attack me. But you’ve gone way too far when you attack someone who’s no longer here to defend themselves.” But the ad never mentions Murtha, and even Critz knows it, because he then goes on to defend himself from some of the charges in Burns’ ad.

Critz also uses his latest ad to yet again falsely attack Burns on the issue of exporting jobs overseas — a claim we have already dismissed as bogus. This race has generated a lot of false claims. Another assertion that we have debunked — this one by the Burns campaign — can be found here.

— by Eugene Kiely

Sources

Office of Congressional Ethics. "OCE Referral Recommending Dismissal Regarding Rep. Murtha." 26 Feb 2010.

Gates, Kent, spokesman, Burns for Congress. Interviews with FactCheck.org. 3-4 May 2010. E-mail sent to FactCheck.org. 29 Apr 2010.

Rupp, Tad, spokesman, Burns for Congress. Interview with FactCheck.org. 29 Apr 2010.

Marx, Claude R. "Mascara requests Murtha probe." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 6 Apr 2002.

Leonnig, Carol D. "Cash pours in for Murtha’s top aide in Pa. race for seat." 26 Apr 2010.

Jackson, Brooks. "Another False Tax Attack (And One That’s Just Deceptive)." FactCheck.org. 21 Apr 2010.

Mikus, Mike, campaign manager, Critz for Congress. E-mail with FactCheck.org. 4 May 2010.

Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. "In the matter of allegations relating to the lobbying activities of Paul Magliocchetti and Associates Group, Inc. (PMA)." 26 Feb 2010.