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.
BAE's charitable contribution to the Marshall Legacy Institute was among the largest by any company last year that was disclosed as one of those honoring a House member.
Defense contractors have rejected the notion that the gifts were intended to curry favor with key officials. Scott Fazekas , director of media Relations for BAE Systems said the donation was made to help the Marshall Legacy Institute continue its efforts in clearing land mine, explosives the company has stopped producing. He noted the company has contributed to the charity a number of times over the past several years.
BAE Systems has deep ties to Moran both on Capitol Hill and in his district, where it has an office. (In May 2009, Moran leaped to the company's defense when an experiment at BAE System's offices in Alexandria apparently went awry, unleashing a sound blast that shook the building, rattled windows and caused ceiling tiles to fall at a neighboring child learning center.)
Fazekas said that the October gala, for which BAE Systems served as a "Platinum Sponsor," honored four others in addition to Moran for their efforts to help get the world's deadly minefields cleared. He also noted that ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos served as the master of ceremonies.
Moran's spokeswoman said if the donation was intended to curry favor with the congressman, his remarks at the event offer proof that it didn't work.
"In his speech, the Congressman offered a tough critique of defense companies that profit from the production of landmines, but then turn around and participate in feel-good public events focused on cleaning up the mess they make," Blout said.
Some defense firms, though not BAE Systems, donated to the Marshall Legacy Institute the previous year, when the gala honoree was the late Rep. John Murtha, the powerful Pennsylvania Democrat who oversaw the military spending committee.