Exposé: Following the Congressional Money Trail

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This Journal profiles The Seattle Times reporters who investigated how members of Congress awarded campaign contributors with federal dollars for companies in their local Congressional districts.


BILL MOYERS: Welcome again and this time to our first collaboration with EXPOSÉ, the public television team that’s gained national acclaim for bringing important investigative stories to television.

Tonight our subject is the growing scandal surrounding earmarks. Once upon a time an earmark was just that — a mark farmers made on the ears of livestock for identification. No longer. An earmark is how politicians fund their pet projects — including some that reward their pet donors. In this year’s spending bills alone Congress has inserted 12,881 earmarks worth over 18 billion dollars. That brought some tough talk from President Bush in his recent state of the union message:

GEORGE BUSH: If you send me an appropriation bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I’ll send it back to you with my veto.

BILL MOYERS: But the president’s heavy artillery was loaded with blanks. Just a few days later it was learned that Mr. Bush has packed the proposed new budget with thousands of his own earmarks — including over six million dollars for research in Vice President Cheney’s home state of Wyoming on “the fundamental properties of asphalt.” I didn’t make that up.

As always, the devil’s in the details, and searching for those details led reporters for the SEATTLE TIMES to some astonishing revelations, as you are about to see. Journalism’s job is to cover the news, but it’s the work of investigative reporters to uncover the news powerful people prefer to keep hidden. Sylvia Chase narrates this EXPOSÉ.

NARRATOR: Reporters David Heath and Hal Bernton have come to a tiny Washington town in pursuit of a big story.

DAVID HEATH: My name is David Heath, I’m a reporter with THE SEATTLE TIMES. I’m working on a story about — you can’t talk to the media?

MAN: Does not allow us to talk to the media at all.

HEATH: OK. So you don’t talk to the media?

MAN 2: Yeah.

NARRATOR: Heath and Bernton are here in Bremerton following a money trail chasing down what are known as “earmarks” — the federal dollars that members of Congress slip into spending bills, often at the last minute, usually to benefit individuals, companies or institutions in their state or district.

HEATH: Two million, OK. And then what was it for?

HAL BERNTON: What was it for?

DAVID HEATH: They spent a million dollars to lobby.

NARRATOR: Earmarks are a perfectly legal form of political pork — and nearly everyone in Congress sponsors them. But as these reporters have learned, they’re not always easy to track.

DAVID HEATH: Oh. Oh I missed it.

HAL BERNTON: Are you sure that’s the right address? 286 Forth?

DAVID HEATH: 286 Forth Street.

NARRATOR: Heath and Bernton work for THE SEATTLE TIMES.

WOMAN: And what they’re doing is

WOMAN 2: They’re building on the flood plain.

WOMAN: They’re building on the flood plain, but they’re building ten feet higher than everybody else.

NARRATOR: With nine full-time investigative reporters and editors, this midsized daily has built an outsized reputation as a tough watchdog.

HAL BERNTON: From these delegations and is there a pattern here in Washington

DAVID BOARDMAN: There is a skepticism to these people. But it’s not a cynicism.

WOMAN: Missouri. But if it’s in their home town

WOMAN2: It’s just easy…

DAVID BOARDMAN: This entire group has both intense passion and child-like curiosity about nearly everything they encounter.

JIM NEFF: Who else has got news for us or what’s, what’s other folks up to?

DAVID HEATH: I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. I was a reporter there. I covered the local school board. It’s pretty straightforward: if you’re an elected official and you are making decisions, you should be able to justify what you’re doing. It’s not supposed to be corrupt. It’s not supposed to be about cronyism. It’s not supposed to be about favoritism. So I came at this story with a certain naiveté, a certain belief that the world is supposed to make sense.

NARRATOR: In the fall of 2006, the world wasn’t making sense for David Heath.

DAVID HEATH: I was watching a documentary called WHY WE FIGHT.

PRESIDENT EISENHOWER: Is felt in every city, every statehouse

DAVID HEATH: And Eisenhower is giving his farewell address to the nation.

PRESIDENT EISENHOWER: We recognize the imperative need for

DAVID HEATH: And he’s warning the nation about this new military industrial complex.

PRESIDENT EISENHOWER: In the counsels of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

NARRATOR: Eisenhower’s words haunted the reporter.

DAVID HEATH: There were a lot of scandals going on at the time. You had a Congressman in San Diego, Duke Cunningham, who was taking bribes . . .

DUKE CUNNINGHAM: . . . concealed my conduct, and disgraced my office. . .

DAVID HEATH: You had a notorious lobbyist, who’s now serving prison time.

JIM LEHRER: Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty today in a major investigation of influence peddling. He appeared in federal court on…

KCTS TV: In Seattle.

DAVID HEATH: And in my neck of the woods, in Seattle, there was a scandal that had gone on involving Boeing.

KCTS TV: Last week, on the heels of serious ethics violations, Boeing Chief Financial Officer Michael Sears was fired. This week…

NARRATOR: In each of these cases, a crime occurred; people went to jail.

NARRATOR: But every year, private interests donate millions of dollars to congressional campaigns, and Congress doles out tens of billions in earmarks and it’s all business as usual.

DAVID HEATH: Sometimes you have scandals where you have a Congressman taking bribes and you think, “Okay, well that was a bad actor.” The question is, is that all there is or is it, or is this something bigger that’s going on? Is there something wrong with the whole culture?

NARRATOR: To try to answer that question, Heath would ultimately have to leave the comfortable terrain of the state of Washington for the back room dealings of that other Washington.

NARRATOR: But first, he would do some reporting with his computer.

NARRATOR: A specialist in data analysis, he decided to home in on Congress’s 2007 defense spending bill all 400 billion dollars of it.

NARRATOR: His plan seemed simple: he’d create a database jammed with everything he could find on the bill’s earmarks. He just needed to get the list of them.

NARRATOR: But there was no list to be found.

DAVID HEATH: They’re literally hidden. I mean they, they’re not in the bill. They’re not in the defense bill. And I finally had to call an expert, a guy who, named Winslow Wheeler, and ask him, “Where are these earmarks anyway? How do you find them?”

NARRATOR: Few understand earmarks better than Winslow Wheeler. The former Capitol Hill staffer spent more than 30 years serving powerful senators from both parties often helping to craft earmarks for his bosses.

WINSLOW WHEELER: If you look at a Department of Defense appropriations bill, you’ll, you’ll not find very much pork in it. What you need to do is look at the committee report — 99% of the pork is in the committee report, not in the statute.

NARRATOR: That is– the Conference Committee Report. Before a bill is passed, both Houses meet in conference. It’s there that they hammer out all their differences, and they finalize their earmarks.

NARRATOR: When Heath found the 2007 Defense Appropriations Conference Committee Report online, he struck gold: 2,700 earmarks, worth nearly 12 billion dollars.

NARRATOR: Now it was simply a matter of transferring the earmarks into his own database. He’d get some assistance from two college interns.

CHANEL MERRITT: I think a lot of people just think of, when they think of investigative reporters, they think of, you know, Woodward and Bernstein, and hiding in the shadows, and trench coats

LIZ BURLINGAME: And those are some of things we’d see in our classes. . .

CHANEL MERRITT: Yeah! And it’s really tedious, long hours at a computer at a phone, working. And it’s not exactly, it’s not what you think at all, and, it’s way harder than you think.

NARRATOR: In fact, deciphering Congress’s earmarks proved nearly impossible.

DAVID HEATH: They’d actually taken simple text and they shrunk it down, tiny little type.

LIZ BURLINGAME: You couldn’t copy and paste any of the information into the database.

DAVID HEATH: And on top of that, the earmarks themselves are in language that’s like a code.

CHANEL MERRITT: Four million dollars, this is just an example, uhm, for NG4BW. And you’re like, “What?”

JIM NEFF: Prop X sub-sonar water system. What’s that?

WINSLOW WHEELER: Advanced hyper-sonic weapon, BMC2 hardware, in, in the loop HWIL technology demonstration. That’s the title. You can understand that easily, right?

DAVID HEATH: It was like they had hired a consultant to figure out how to make this as hard as possible.

NARRATOR: Winslow Wheeler told Heath that to unscramble the earmarks, he should take advantage of Congress’s penchant for self-promotion.

WINSLOW WHEELER: A lot of these members of Congress put out press releases that delineate the pork they’ve added to the various bills. And in there you can probably find out who the manufacturer is. You can get, rather than three words to describe it, you can get maybe three sentences. And you start unraveling the string.

DAVID HEATH: There’s 535 members of Congress. And I had to go through their individual websites and basically spend all that time hunting through their Web sites for that press release about their earmarks.

DAVID HEATH: I got to know, by the end of the process, the name of every single company that got an earmark. OK, there was a company that sells shock absorbers had gotten an earmark. There was an eye doctor, you know, one-man shop that had gotten an earmark.

NARRATOR: It took Heath and his team months of full-time work, but in the end they had produced an unprecedented database containing a list of all the earmarks in the defense bill, the congressional sponsors and the private-sector recipients.

NARRATOR: They also added information on six years’ worth of campaign contributions made by those earmark recipients, plus data on the millions they spent lobbying Congress.

DAVID HEATH: For lobbying expenses they had spent, in 2006 alone, one year, 160 million dollars lobbying Congress. Big money, but they got 12 billion dollars in earmarks.

NARRATOR: But unless a bribe can be proven, earmarks aren’t illegal. And for all David Heath knew, they might well be critical to the nation’s defense.

NARRATOR: To find out, Heath would look into what taxpayers were buying with all the earmarked money.

NARRATOR: THE SEATTLE TIMES is a local newspaper; Heath started with earmarks initiated by Pacific Northwest members of Congress.

DAVID HEATH: The earmarks that I ended up picking, it was almost like throwing darts. The first one I started off with was with a company called Microvision.

NARRATOR: Seattle’s Microvision Corporation produced a high tech device called the “Nomad.” The helmet mounted computer display hangs in front of a soldiers’ eye and projects battlefield maps onto his field of vision.

NARRATOR: The Nomad, Heath learned, was earmarked again and again.

NARRATOR: 2001: 8 million dollars to develop the device. Among the sponsors: Washington Republican Senator Slade Gorton. Two years later, after being defeated for reelection, Gorton joined the Microvision board.

NARRATOR: 2004: 5.5 million dollars to buy Nomads. The sponsor: Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat.

NARRATOR: When Heath crosschecked that earmark with campaign contributions to Murray, he found this:

DAVID HEATH: Microvision executives had all on one day given Patty Murray a large donation, and then a month later Senator Murray announced that she was getting an earmark for the company.

NARRATOR: And the Senator wasn’t done earmarking the Microvision device. In 2005, there was another 6 million dollars for more Nomads, nearly 1600 of them.

NARRATOR: Heath had followed the money. But now it was time to talk to those who would use the Nomad — Stryker Brigade soldiers stationed at a local base.

NARRATOR: His editor, Jim Neff, called in some backup from the paper’s specialist in military affairs — Hal Bernton.

JIM NEFF: And Hal knew people at the base, he had reported on the Stryker Brigade. He had been embedded with them in Iraq. So, what better reporter in the country, you know, actually in the world, to have investigate the Nomad, than Hal Bernton?

HAL BERNTON: I really approached it with a pretty open mind. If they were using it, and it was working, fine. I would tell David that.

NARRATOR: But they were not using the Nomad in combat. The Army had concluded it was distracting to wear, and caused a blind spot.

NARRATOR: One Iraq vet — retired command Sergeant Major Thomas Adams — put it bluntly:

DAVID HEATH: He said, “It’s junk.”

HAL BERNTON: He actually told David and I at one point that most of them had just ended up in a warehouse.

DAVID HEATH: I was shocked. I mean it was like, you know, I have to admit, not only was I shocked but there was also this kind of a rush that you get when you’re an investigative reporter and you realize, “Oh, my God, can you believe this?” I mean, they’re selling a product to the military that they’re not even using.

NARRATOR: And there was more. The reporters found a press release from Defense contractor Rockwell Collins.

NARRATOR: The company was trumpeting a contract it had gotten for its own helmet-mounted display.

NARRATOR: The Rockwell Collins device had beaten out rivals in an Army-staged evaluation.

NARRATOR: Among the defeated: Microvision’s Nomad.

NARRATOR: Heath was keeping a running timeline. He entered the date of the Rockwell Collins announcement. Something jumped off the screen:

DAVID HEATH: Rockwell Collins makes this announcement that they won the contract on a particular day, and the next day Patty Murray announces that she’s getting a huge earmark for this Nomad being produced by Microvision.

NARRATOR: It was that 6 million dollar earmark, the TIMES would report, for almost 1600 Nomads.

HAL BERNTON: When I saw that Senator Murray awarded an earmark after it had lost, after the Nomad had lost this competition, I wondered like, “Did she know that? Was she aware of it?” If she wasn’t aware of it, it seemed like she should have been. And if she was aware of it, why would she do it? I was just, it just raised more questions.

DAVID HEATH: The database became sort of the base for all of our inquiries. Now there was that list that I couldn’t find before. We had made it. So, now I could go through methodically and start looking at each one. T-shirts Oh, well, let’s take a look at that.

DAVID HEATH: OK, so InSport, InSport is an athletic apparel company. They make t-shirts. Vital Apparel is their parent company.

NARRATOR: In 2005, David Wu was among a group of Northwest legislators sponsoring a two million dollar earmark for t-shirts to be worn by Marines as undergarments in combat.

NARRATOR: That same year, on a trip to Iraq, the Oregon Congressman was promoting the shirts, handing them out for free to Marines.

NARRATOR: The earmark specified that the shirts be purchased from a Portland area company called InSport. Executives of InSport and its parent company would become Wu campaign contributors.

DAVID HEATH: And as you can see, they gave substantial campaign contributions to David Wu in early 2006…

NARRATOR: The t-shirts were made of polyester.

NARRATOR: But polyester shirts have a potentially dangerous flaw, demonstrated to Heath and EXPOSÉ by one of InSport’s competitors.

DOUGH HOSCHEK: I’ll light the polyester with a simple lighter flame, here, which will ignite the fabric. . .

DOUGH HOSCHEK: The problems with these fibers is these are made from chemicals, and the chemicals are based in oil, and as soon as there’s heat to them, flame, which of course everybody’s experiencing in the war, now in Iraq and Afghanistan, with explosions, the polyester will literally melt into plastic and stick to your skin.

DOUGH HOSCHEK: It’s basically hard. And, and that brittleness right there, that hardness is what would be on your skin, stuck to your skin.

NARRATOR: The Military has known the danger for over 20 years. And a Marine in Iraq was severely burned when his polyester t-shirt melted following an explosion.

NARRATOR: The reporters couldn’t confirm who manufactured the shirt. As a result of the incident, in April 2006, the Marines banned the use of all polyester t-shirts in combat.

NARRATOR: Yet three months later, because of the earmark, the Marines bought 87,000 of them from InSport, along with 11,000 t-shirts with fire resistant sleeves.

NARRATOR: But even these they wouldn’t trust in battle.

HAL BERNTON: The Marines were telling me that this product still wasn’t certified for use outside the wire. It wasn’t something that could be used on combat missions.

NARRATOR: Two months after that, Wu and his colleagues inserted another $1 million earmark for more InSport shirts.

HAL BERNTON: So I was trying to figure out, “Why were they giving them another million dollars if they still didn’t have a product that could work?”

DAVID HEATH: And then, interestingly, the day the bill passed, the next day he got another campaign contribution from InSport, and within three weeks he’d gotten a couple more. That just seemed surreal.

NARRATOR: With that last million, the Marines bought shirts from InSport that had not specifically been named in the earmark: flame resistant fleeces.

NARRATOR: For Bernton and Heath, there were more earmarks to examine.

NARRATOR: In 2001, Senator Patty Murray put a 4.65 million dollar earmark into the Coast Guard budget for this patrol boat. But, the TIMES would report, the Coast Guard hadn’t asked for the boat.

NARRATOR: Not all in Congress were supportive.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: And there is only one company in the country which produces such a vessel, and it just happens to be Guardian Marine International located in Edmonds, Washington. Not only did the United States Coast Guard not ask for this vessel: they looked at the Guardian vessel, considered its merits and concluded that it would not adequately meet the Coast Guard’s needs. Taxpayers of America, look at the Guardian fast patrol craft which will be yours whether the Coast Guard wants it or not.

NARRATOR: The Coast Guard didn’t want it.

NARRATOR: And so it ended up here- where David Heath tracked it down- navigating the San Francisco Bay. It now belongs to a local county sheriff’s office.

JIM LAMBERT: You can see the rudder position indicator down here…

JIM LAMBERT: September 30, 2005 was the day we picked up the boat from the Coast Guard station over here. We paid one dollar for this boat, and I don’t think we actually paid a dollar, but it was turned over to us.

NARRATOR: As the TIMES would discover, Murray, with Washington Congressmen Norm Dicks and Brian Baird, would sponsor millions in earmarks for three patrol boats for the Navy as well.

NARRATOR: None are being used as the earmarks directed. Two have been shuttled off to military research facilities; and the third boat?

DAVID HEATH: It turns out that the Navy gave the boat away to the University of Washington before the boat was even launched.

RUSSELL MCDUFF: It was moored right here.

RUSSELL McDUFF: We informed the Navy, “This isn’t something that works for us and what do you want to do?”

NARRATOR: The boat sat idle for more than a year, then was transferred to a branch of the National Weather Service in Vancouver, Washington.

NARRATOR: When the reporters followed the money — they found campaign contributions from the boats’ builders to legislators who sponsored the earmarks.

NARRATOR: David Heath had begun his investigation with a question: beyond the congressional lawbreakers, the bribe takers, the bad actors, is there something bigger going on?

DAVID HEATH: This is not about an aberration. This is about a culture. This is about a system that’s doing this. It’s not just a bad Congressman.

NARRATOR: After nearly a year’s painstaking work, it was time for Mr. Heath to go to Washington. In the fall of 2007, Heath journeyed to the nation’s Capitol and sat down to interview Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Norm Dicks.

NARRATOR: Both defended their earmarks, and denied any wrongdoing.

NORM DICKS (AUDIO): There’s never, ever been any quid pro quo. You know, people, if they want to support me they support me. If they don’t want to support me, I still might do their earmark. I mean, if I thought it was a worthy project. If you went to a system where you couldn’t take a campaign contribution, then the only people you could get- the.only people you could get money from are people that you’ve never helped.

NARRATOR: Senator Murray told Heath that her earmarks gave Washington State businesses a fair shot at federal dollars:

PATTY MURRAY (AUDIO): People tend to talk about earmarks as something that is a bad thing. I see it as a way to make sure that the tax dollars that are spent are spent in a very wise way and help our state economically.

NARRATOR: When pressed specifically on the problems Heath had uncovered with the Nomad, Murray admitted things don’t always turn out well:

PATTY MURRAY (AUDIO): I wish every single dollar that I put in to any project was a thousand percent successful. It’s unfortunate that there is one that isn’t working well and nobody regrets it more than I do. None of us bat a thousand, and obviously this one didn’t or potentially hasn’t and, you know, we’ll just keep trying to get close to a thousand as we can. That’s what my job is.

FRANK BLETHEN: It’s our job to hold our delegation accountable no matter what we think of them, good, bad or indifferent.

NARRATOR: THE SEATTLE TIMES owner and publisher Frank Blethen and the paper’s editorial board are big boosters of Senator Patty Murray and other legislators the paper reported on, and have publicly endorsed them for office.

NARRATOR: But the TIMES has made its name investigating any and all subjects.

DAVID BOARDMAN: We have taken on virtually every sacred cow in Seattle, from the University of Washington Huskies football team to Nordstrom, which was one of our largest advertisers, to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which was probably the most sacred of cows in this community.

FRANK BLETHEN: We consider Patty Murray a friend and we have great respect and admiration for Patty. But we did the story anyway.

NARRATOR: The TIMES “did the story” in the fall of 2007: the earmarks, the campaign contributions, the money spent on products the military didn’t want or couldn’t use and the response from the legislators.

NARRATOR: And on its Web site, the paper has posted David Heath’s one-of-a-kind database. Now, anybody can find out about those 2700 defense bill earmarks.

NARRATOR: And Heath is not stopping there. He’s writing follow-up stories, and is creating an earmark database for all 2008 appropriations bills.

HAL BERNTON: Which one are we?

DAVID HEATH: Suite 8. Yeah it’s got to be upstairs.

DAVID HEATH: My name is David Heath and I’m with THE SEATTLE TIMES, I’m looking for a company that’s. . .

DAVID HEATH: I’m gonna continue writing about earmarks.

WOMAN: They used to be in this location

DAVID HEATH: I think there’s a lot of elements to this story that haven’t been told yet, and I’m going to continue writing about it until we really understand what’s going on.

CARD 1: Congressman Brian Baird told THE SEATTLE TIMES he stands by his earmarks.

CARD 2: Congressman David Wu told another newspaper he was ” horrified by the implication that there’s a connection” between his earmarks and his campaign contributions.

CARD 1: Congressman Brian Baird told THE SEATTLE TIMES he stands by his earmarks.

CARD 2: Congressman David Wu told another newspaper he was “…horrified by the implication that there’s a connection” between his earmarks and his campaign contributions.

CARD 3: The TIMES has reported that the Marines plan to buy fleece pullovers from InSport again, with an earmark that call instead for “base layer garments.” The earmarked polyester InSport T-shirts remain banned from combat. The fleeces can be used in combat.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t, for a moment, think that the “favor factory” uncovered by THE SEATTLE TIMES reporter David Heath is unique to the Pacific Northwest. To the contrary there are 535 members of Congress and only 13 of them requested no earmarks last year. Thirteen out of 535.

Top prize in the house for raking in the earmarks goes to Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi with over 177 million dollars. Before moving to the Senate this year he was on the House Appropriations Committee, which attracts campaign contributions like honey attracts bees. Others on the top ten list: Murtha $176 million, Young $169 million, Hoyer $139 million, and on and on.

Over in the Senate the champion earmarker is Thad Cochran also of Mississippi. He’s the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that’s another big honey pot. Runners up after Thad Cochran‘s $837 million dollars are: Landrieu, Stevens, Bond, Shelby, Inouye, Byrd, Murray, Clinton, Durbin.

JEFF FLAKE: I rise today for concern over what earmarks are doing to this body.

BILL MOYERS: Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona has been fighting earmarks.

JEFF FLAKE: For every group that directly benefits from earmarks there are hundreds who see it as a transparent gimmick to ensure our own reelection. Mr. Speaker, our constituents deserve better. This institution deserves better than we’re giving it. Let’s return to the time honored practice of authorization, appropriation, and oversight that has served us so well.

BILL MOYERS: But look what happens when you take on the system. Jeff Flake wanted, a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, but the party’s leaders turned him down.

Public discontent over the corruption of earmarks has produced some modest results. The House now requires members to put their names next to the projects receiving the money. At least citizens have a better chance at finding out who’s getting the loot. Go to our Web site on pbs.org and you’ll find links to several watchdog groups like the Sunlight Foundation and Taxpayers for Common Sense, who have made it easier for all of us to follow the money.

This transcript was entered on June 13, 2015. 

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