When Virginia Congressman James P. Moran Jr. recently received "Man of the Year" honors from a charity that trains dogs to clear land mines, some of his most loyal political patrons joined in the tribute.
Defense industry giant BAE Systems donated $50,000 to help underwrite the Marshall Legacy Institute event. Raytheon gave $25,000, EADS North America donated $5,000, and L-3 Communications pitched in another $10,000.
Industry officials said the corporate donations were intended to honor a well deserving charity. But the companies also have tens of millions worth of business before the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, where Moran holds significant sway – and where Moran earmarked $1.6 million for BAE in late 2008.
The practice of making charitable contributions in honor of high ranking public officials has become increasingly common in Washington, especially among military suppliers who profit from massive government contracts.
The uptick in giving came at a time when Moran, a Democrat, and several other members of the defense appropriations subcommittee were being investigated on allegations that they had traded military spending earmarks for campaign contributions. In December, the Office of Congressional Ethics told Moran and at least two other House members that its investigation was being closed, and it recommended the House ethics committee take no further action in its own probe.
"In many cases these are wonderful charities and many of these are innocent arrangements," said Scott Thomas, an attorney who advises corporate clients on disclosure rules. "But there probably are some circumstances where an organization looking to make a connection with a particular member of congress gives money for that reason – because they think it will help them get their foot in the door."
Lawmakers grew so concerned about the corrupting potential of contributions to pet charities, they began requiring donors to disclose their gifts, which is where filings about the land mine gala event surfaced last week.
Although BAE System's disclosure report identified Moran as the "honoree" for its contribution, both the company and Moran's office said the filing should not be misinterpreted.
"Under the new lobbying disclosure rules, companies that support an event in which a Member of Congress is being honored must report their contributions to the event," said Emily Blout, Moran's press secretary. "None of the event's supporters donated any contributions in the Congressman's honor."
BAE Systems and other defense contractors have become prolific donors to events honoring public officials In the past year, charitable contributions have honored not only members of congress, but key administration officials and top military brass, as a recent review of those records by USA Today discovered. The paper found that defense lobbyists spent nearly $750,000 to help honor Obama administration officials during six months in 2009. And the biggest givers were in the defense industry, with Lockheed Martin committing the most, followed by BAE Systems and General Dynamics.
The paper found that Lockheed spent nearly $190,000 on such gifts, including $50,000 to the National Defense University in honor of Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and another $50,000 to the Coast Guard Foundation for a dinner event where Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was a prominent guest.