A Profile in Arrogance

Jack Murtha’s sleazy political legacy.

Congressman John “Jack” Murtha, who died last week at the age of 77, represented western Pennsylvania’s Twelfth District in the House for 35 years. But Murtha’s impressive longevity belies his more dubious political legacy. The narrative of Murtha's legislative career was punctuated on virtually every line by self-absorption, self-interest, secret dealings, and an ugly brand of political hackery that placed Murtha's own lust for power above the welfare of his country.

A logical place to begin an examination of Murtha's career would be the early 1980s, when the Congressman was named as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the so-called “Abscam” (a contraction of “Abdul scam”) corruption probe of several U.S. legislators. That inquiry was conducted between 1978 and 1980 – not by right-wing enemies of Murtha and his fellow Democrats, but by President Jimmy Carter's Justice Department. Initially, the FBI established a phony investment firm called “Abdul Enterprises” in New York City and invented a fictitious Middle Eastern sheikh, “Yasser Habib.” Bureau agents, posing as “Habib” and his attendants, offered bribes to Murtha and several other members of the House and Senate in exchange for their pledge to provide political favors to the “sheikh.” Specifically, the legislators were asked to help “Habib” purchase asylum in the United States and transfer his financial assets out of his native country. In exchange for their assistance, the Congressmen were offered handsome financial rewards.

Murtha, for his part, rejected a blatant $50,000 bribe but not the influence buying tactics. Murtha unambiguously left open the possibility that he might be willing to “do business” with the “sheikh” and his retinue at some point in the future. A 54-minute FBI videotape shows Murtha, then a member of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, telling the FBI undercover agents:

“You know, you made an offer. It might be that I might change my mind someday.”

Murtha explained that he simply needed some time to get to know the “sheikh” and his cohorts a bit better, and to develop a sense that he could trust them not to squeal, before he would be ready to risk accepting such a large bribe:

“I want to deal with you guys awhile before I make any transactions at all, period. After we've done some business, well, then I might change my mind [and agree to the scheme]. I'm going to tell you this. If anybody can do it — I am not bullsh--tting you fellows — I can get it done my way. There's no question about it.”

“You know,” Murtha added cautiously, “we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won’t.”

These were the words of a political opportunist whose eagerness to complete a lucrative transaction was tempered only by his fear of being caught in the act. “I've gotta be completely to the point where I can disclaim anything,” Murtha stressed. “And that's why I'm so careful about making any deals.”

As fortune would have it, Murtha actually did think of a way to structure a mutually beneficial arrangement with the “sheikh,” short of taking the $50,000 bribe at that point in time. Murtha said that in lieu of accepting the bribe just yet, he would be glad to offer political favors to “Habib” in exchange for money which the “sheikh” might make available, through Murtha, for businesses in the latter's congressional district. Said Murtha:

“I wanna do business with you. I mean I want to get the goddamn jobs in the area. You know, if you, the bank deposits in my area. [There's] nothing I'd like better. Later on, you know, after we've dealt awhile, you know we might change our minds. We might want to do more business. But right now, I think I can do more this way than any other way.”

Murtha proceeded to crudely express his concern that the public might someday find out about his secret willingness to put a price tag on his political influence:

“When I make a fu**in’ deal, I want to make sure that I know exactly what I’m doing ...  And what I'm sayin' is, a few investments in my district, a few you know, is big to me … to a couple of banks which would get their attention. And investment in a business where you could legitimately say to me — when I say legitimately, I'm talking about so these bastards up here can't say to me, well, why, in eight years from now, that's possible, we'd never hear a thing for eight years, but all at once, ah, some dumb bastard would go start talking eight years from now, ah, about the whole thing and say, '[Jesus Christ], ah, this happened,' then he, then he, in order to get immunity so he doesn't go to jail, he starts talking and fingering people and then the [expletive] all falls apart."

All told, seven members of Congress (six of them Democrats) accepted bribe money from the “sheikh.” The House Ethics Committee appointed a special prosecutor, Barrett Prettyman, to investigate the matter. Then, in early 1981 the Committee became concerned that Murtha, too, had violated House rules by failing to report the attempted bribery to law-enforcement authorities. Prettyman began looking into Murtha's activities as well. In addition, as the Wall Street Journal explains, the prosecutor was “rumored to be offering deals in exchange for testimony that would take the scandal inside the office of [House] Speaker O'Neill” – a reference to Thomas “Tip” O'Neill, the Democratic U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts. At that point, a jittery O'Neill moved to shut down the Murtha probe as quickly as possible. That decision so infuriated the special prosecutor, that he promptly resigned in protest.

Of course, Murtha was not really innocent. He even testified in federal court that he had gone so far as to call his “immigration guy” to discuss the possibility of helping the “sheikh” – who had just offered Murtha a $50,000 bribe – to resolve his immigration concerns. Ultimately, the congressman, as stipulated by the terms that would enable him to avoid prosecution, testified against two House colleagues who had been implicated in the FBI sting. In other words, Murtha himself had morphed into the same type of shadowy figure he had previously claimed to fear: a “dumb bastard” who “would go start talking … in order to get immunity so he doesn't go to jail.”

Abscam was by no means Murtha’s only involvement in financial chicanery. In 2004 the congressman, who was then the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, steered more than $20 million in federal appropriations to at least ten companies that were represented by KSA Consulting, a Maryland-based lobbying firm where two of the senior partners were Murtha’s brother, Robert “Kit” Murtha, and a former aide to Rep. Murtha, Carmen V. Scialabba.

Murtha always viewed taxpayer dollars essentially as slush funds that he could use to finance his own political pet projects. In February 2008 the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), which promotes fiscal responsibility and federal earmarks reform, named Murtha as Congress’s 2007 “Porker of the Year” “for flouting the rules and playing games with reform, while filing spending bills with pork and arrogantly threatening anyone that challenges his authority.” Noting that Murtha had secured 72 earmarks worth $149.2 million for his district in fiscal year 2007, CAGW said:

“Rep. Jack Murtha has long been known inside the Beltway for using threats, power plays, and backroom deals to control spending decisions. There is an area of the House floor known as ‘Murtha’s corner,’ where the legendary appropriator dispenses earmarks. The overwhelming vote for Porker of the Year shows that his shameful behavior is attracting attention throughout the country.”

Midway through 2009, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) – which reserves most of its criticisms for Republicans – anointed Murtha as the U.S. Congress's “King of Pork,” in recognition of the $192 million in earmarks he had secured for his district in 2008, coupled with another $134 million in earmarks he had requested during the first half of 2009. CREW executive director Melanie Sloan put it this way:

“The more Rep. Murtha’s dealings are exposed, the more we all learn about how Congress really operates and the more disgusted the public becomes. CREW will continue to shine the light on Rep. Murtha until the congressman changes his ways or is indicted. I’d take a bet on which is the more likely outcome.”

Impervious, as always, to the taxpayers' legitimate concerns about how their hard-earned money was spent by government, Murtha glibly shrugged off Sloan's comments by saying: “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district.”

Further questions about Murtha’s use (or misuse) of taxpayer money were raised by the expenses associated with the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania -- the congressman's home district. This facility is equipped with a $7 million air-traffic-control tower, a $14 million hangar, and an $18 million, state-of-the-art runway. As a result of Murtha’s influence, more than $150 million in taxpayer funds were funneled to this airport between 1999 and 2009, including $800,000 (from the February 2009 stimulus bill), which was allocated for repaving an “alternate runway.” These massive expenditures hardly seem justified: Only three flights per day – all to Washington, DC – originate from the Murtha airport.

His many financial shenanigans aside, Murtha in recent years was best known to the public as an inveterate critic of the U.S. war effort in Iraq. In October 2002 Murtha voted, albeit grudgingly, to authorize America’s use of military force against Saddam Hussein: “I only voted for it,” he explained, “because I [had] said to [Vice President] Cheney and the President, ‘You have to go to the U.N.,’ and when they did that, what the hell could I do?”

After that, Murtha did everything he could to hamstring President Bush, to paint the war effort as a foolish endeavor, and to thereby pressure the President to adopt the type of minimalist approach to the war that would only prolong the slow bleed – an outcome that Murtha well understood could potentially cause great harm to the country. But he was more interested in the political benefits he and the Democrats could derive from it. Presaging Harry Reid (who would infamously proclaim “this war is lost”), in May 2004 Murtha asserted that the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq had made the war “unwinnable.” In November 2005 he announced that “the Army is broken,” and that “the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq” was not only “impeding … progress” there, but indeed was acting as a “catalyst for violence.”

Then in May 2006, the Haditha story landed in Murtha's lap. It was an unsubstantiated allegation that a squad of eight U.S. Marines had killed, without cause, up to two-dozen unarmed civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. The congressman appeared immediately on ABC’s This Week program, where he said that the Marines had “overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” “There’s no question in my mind about what happened here,” declared Murtha. “There was no gunfire [from the Iraqis]. They [the American Marines] killed four people in a taxi and then in addition to that, they went into the rooms and killed them.” He further alleged that the U.S. military was trying to “cover up” what had occurred in Haditha.

In the May 17, 2006 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, the host said to Murtha: “[W]hen you say 'cold blood,' Congressman, a lot of people think you're basically saying you have got some civilians sitting in a room or out in a field and they're executed just on purpose.” Murtha replied, “That’s exactly what happened.”

Except that it wasn’t. By June 2008, it had become apparent that Murtha’s allegations against the eight Marines were entirely unfounded. Charges had been dismissed against six of the eight, while a seventh had been fully acquitted. Moreover, two of the Marines – including Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the only one who was still facing any charges – filed defamation and slander suits against Murtha.

Murtha not only remained unapologetic but he signed on to another Democratic campaign to discredit the war effort, voting in favor of a June 2008 resolution drawn up by Congressman Dennis Kucinich to investigate the feasibility of impeaching George W. Bush for “high crimes and misdemeanors” – as punishment for having led the U.S. to war in the first place.

Indeed, after voting to authorize it, Murtha opposed the U.S.-led war effort at every step. In June 2006 Murtha voted against a Congressional proposal to formally declare that Iraq was a crucial theater in the overall War on Terror, and that it would be unwise to set a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops. Four months later, Murtha voted in favor of withdrawing American troops at the earliest practicable date. Then, in early 2007, Murtha spoke out against the Bush administration’s planned troop “surge” -- where an additional 21,500 soldiers would be deployed to Iraq in an effort to quell the insurgency there. Vowing “to stop this surge,” Murtha stated that “surges have not worked in the past” because enemy forces “disappear, and then they come back later on. To think that a surge will work is, in my estimation, false thinking.” Murtha could not have been more wrong, as the troop surge successfully turned the tide of the war.

One irony of Murtha’s career is that although he worked tirelessly to secure taxpayer dollars for his district, he did not hold his constituents in high esteem. In October of 2008, just weeks before the presidential election, he accused voters in his Pennsylvania home district of being bigots because, in his estimation, they were not supporting Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in sufficiently large numbers (though Obama was in fact leading in the local polls). “I think Obama is going to win [the local vote], but I don’t think it's going to be a runaway,” Murtha said. “There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area,” he added. “The older population is more hesitant [to embrace a black candidate].”

Murtha’s remarks drew considerable media attention, and the congressman issued an ambiguous “clarification” the next day: “It's [the racism is] better than it was a few weeks ago. It's better than it was a few months ago.” In an interview with a local news channel the following week, Murtha sought to further “clarify” his remarks: “What I mean is there’s still folks that have a problem voting for someone because they are black.... This whole area, years ago, was really redneck.”

It was some thanks to the voters who had sent him to Washington for over three decades. As a final act in Murtha's career, it was also fitting. For all his political success, Mutha remained a self-anointed know-it-all who considered himself not only more enlightened than the “rednecks” who inhabited his district, but also better qualified to spend money than the hardworking Americans who made it.