The War on Murtha

Congressman's theatrics about Iraq spark a new fracas out in the lobby

Being called a coward could turn out to be the least of Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha's problems. As the GOP fires up a counterattack against the ranking Democrat on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, Murtha's ties to his brother's lobbying firm are once again coming under scrutiny. Some 10 companies with ties to KSA Consulting, a lobbying firm where Murtha's brother Robert is a senior partner, got $20.8 million in defense contracts. The Los Angeles Times in June reported that the funding was passed as part of the Pentagon's overall $417 billion spending bill.

Roll Call recently reported Murtha leaning on Navy officials to transfer the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard to San Francisco on land whose rights were at one time held by a company whose top execs included Laurence Pelosi, a relative of Nancy Pelosi's. Murtha is widely credited with being a prime figure in getting Pelosi the Democratic minority leader job in the House. Pelosi's office said the suggestion Pelosi was involved in any impropriety was "absolutely ludicrous."

Some Republicans want an ethics investigation. "I have read the articles about these appropriations projects that benefited his brother's lobbying firm," South Carolina Republican congressman Joe Wilson told Roll Call. "If there is a potential pattern where Congressman Murtha has helped other Democrats secure appropriations that also benefited relatives of those members, I believe this would be something that merits further review by the ethics committee." Investor's Business Daily recently suggested that Murtha might have jumped on the anti-war bandwagon to head off an ethics investigation into contract improprieties.

Murtha denied to the Associated Press that family ties had anything to do with the contracts, saying, "We treat every lobbying firm with the same consideration. We listen to their proposal and base our decision on the actual merits of the project proposal."

Robert Murtha said, "Let's be honest: The name certainly creates some kind of impression, but I can't help that. We're not doing anything improper or underhanded. I'm entitled to make a living, like the next guy."

One of the companies benefiting from the contracts got $1.7 million, three times its 2004 sales. Other firms got contracts totaling more than half of their sales in 2004. Murtha received $68,000 in campaign contributions during the 2003 cycle from defense contractors.

The congressman has showered his district with good works, and as a result his name adorns many buildings, including an airport in Cambria County, research center at Saint Francis University, cancer center in Johnstown, an amphitheater along the Allegheny River in Kittanning, and the Institute for Homeland Security at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. And in honor of his wife, there is the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center at the Windber Medical Center.


Echoes from the '95 Oklahoma City bombing

Within hours after the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, federal agents focused their investigations on far-right-wing extremists within the U.S. The feds said publicly that the crime was the work of Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols, along with a man described as John Doe 2, a swarthy person depicted in a roughly drawn poster splashed around the country. As time went on, the government dropped all reference to John Doe 2.

McVeigh's defense investigators, along with some journalists, soon concluded that the crime involved more people than McVeigh and Nichols, and they began to focus on a racist religious community in the Ozarks called Elohim City, which even by then was a legendary hangout for people on the lam. McVeigh had made a telephone call to Elohim City shortly before the bombing, and a separate investigation had uncovered possible connection to a wild gang of bank robbers who were part of the Aryan Republican Army, which had stopped by Elohim City. However, much of the talk about Elohim City was conjecture and was kept out of both trials.

Now, with McVeigh already executed and Nichols in jail for life, newly revealed information adds to the suspicions that they did not act alone, and that there may well have been an extremist underground behind the bombing.

The new information comes in the form of internal FBI messages and in an unsealed portion of a 1997 trial transcript involving Carol Howe, a former Tulsa debutante ostensibly turned neo-Nazi. In reality, she was an undercover contract informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) sent to infiltrate Elohim City.

In this testimony, taken with no media present, Angela Finley-Graham, Howe's BATF handler, answered questions put to her by Howe's attorney Clark Brewster, who asked whether, in 1994 and 1995, Howe had warned BATF that Andreas Strassmeir and others at Elohim City were plotting to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building. Strassmeir is a German national who resided for a time at Elohim City and was rumored to be part of the plot. He left the U.S. after the bombing.

Brewster: "And Ms. Howe told you about Mr. Strassmeir's threats to blow up federal buildings, didn't she?"

Graham: "In general, yes."

Brewster: "And that was before the Oklahoma City bombing?"

Graham: "Yes."

The BATF handler acknowledged in testimony that she knew that Howe and others from Elohim City went to Oklahoma City before the bombing. When Howe returned, she was debriefed by BATF and then actually taken to Oklahoma City to show Finley-Graham where she had been.

When Finley-Graham finished that part of her testimony, U.S. District Judge Michael Burrage engaged in the following colloquy with Brewster:

Burrage: "With that McVeigh trial going on, I don't want anything getting out of here that would compromise that trial in any way."

Brewster: "What do you mean by 'compromise'? Do you mean shared with McVeigh's lawyers?"

Burrage: "Yes, or something that would come up—you know, we have got evidence that the BATF took a trip with somebody that said buildings were going to be blown up in Oklahoma City before it was blown up or something of that nature, and try to connect it to McVeigh in some way or something."

Brewster: "That would be up to their representation of the client in some regard, Your Honor. If you are asking me not to share any documentation from these files with those lawyers, then I won't."

Howe never got to testify in the McVeigh trial and only in a limited manner in the Nichols trial and wasn't allowed to tell the jury she was a federal contract informant.

This new information all comes thanks to the work of Salt Lake City lawyer Jesse Trentadue, who is suing the FBI, after charging that its agents killed his brother Kenneth in an Oklahoma prison after the bombing. Because Kenneth Trentadue bore some resemblance to the John Doe poster, his brother believes he was murdered by FBI agents during an interrogation in which they sought to get him to confess to having been part of the bomb plot.

All in all, this information would appear to suggest that the federal government did indeed know about the far-right extremist plan to blow up something in Oklahoma City before it happened. It successfully kept discussion of the subject out of the trials, and it denied McVeigh's lawyers important information in preparing their defense. This adds credence to the work of J.D. Cash, a reporter for the McCurtain(Oklahoma) Daily Gazette, who has unearthed bit by bit the details of a government cover-up and possible malfeasance.


Additional reporting: Michael Roston

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