President Obama's pick for Army Secretary has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from defense firms and lobbyists, including some connected to a firm under investigation for alleged campaign finance fraud.
"He has certainly played the game here in Washington, gotten campaign contributions and delivered earmarks," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that watchdogs government spending.
"I'm not saying it disqualifies him," Ellis added, "but it's something that should be evaluated."
In response to questions for this article, a spokesperson from McHugh's office gave a statement. "The Congressman has never let a contribution influence any vote as an elected official and he stands ready to respond to any questions the Senate may put before him."
As chairman and then ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, McHugh has reaped over $220,000 in campaign donations from defense firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He's received tens of thousands more from lobbyists for companies who do big business with the Pentagon.
One conduit of McHugh's campaign cash is under federal investigation: the PMA Group, a firm now under federal investigation for alleged campaign finance violations. PMA has been roundly criticized for practicing "pay-to-play" lobbying, by channeling millions to lawmakers who were in a position to funnel hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds back to their clients, via earmarks in spending bills.
PMA's lobbyists and clients have given McHugh over $160,000, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. And last year, PMA lobbyists co-hosted two fundraisers for McHugh, according to research by the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation. A review of campaign records suggests the events brought in around $25,000 for McHugh's re-election.
None of the contributions from PMA to McHugh are alleged to have been fraudulent.
Obama Army Pick "Played the Game" in Washington
An examination of recent legislation by the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense shows McHugh occasionally inserted earmarks for donors. Last year, he got a $2 million earmark in for medical equipment manufacturer Welch Allyn to develop a "personal status monitor" for troops. The firm and its lobbyists gave McHugh $5,800 in campaign donations over the past two years.
In the same bill, McHugh inserted a $3.2 million earmark for the Syracuse Research Corporation to develop an airplane-mounted radar system, dubbed FORESTER. The company and its lobbyists gave his campaign $7,500 during the last campaign cycle. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
McHugh also steered $640,000 to an unspecified program operated by the Ft. Drum Regional Health Planning Organization. A private health firm, Health Net Federal Services, provides medical services at Ft. Drum, and is a member of the planning organization. Its employees and political action committee have donated more than $40,000 to McHugh. The firm employed PMA Group until the company disbanded following news of an FBI raid on its offices last November.
Disclosure filings by PMA indicate Health Net retained the firm to represent its interests regarding appropriations and spending authorization.
The PMA lobbyists representing Health Net were the co-sponsors of the two fundraisers last year. Reached by phone Wednesday, one of the lobbyists, Lynn Henselman, said she contributed to and helped raise money for McHugh because she believed in his efforts on behalf of the military, after having worked with him as an aide on the Armed Services Committee. Efforts to reach the other lobbyist, Brian Thiel, were unsuccessful. Neither Henselman nor Thiel have been mentioned in connection to the federal investigation of their ex-employer, the PMA Group.
A Health Net spokeswoman said the company hired PMA for "its help and expertise in military health care policy." She explained the firm had contributed to McHugh because he was a "good advocate" who is "well-grounded in military health care and active in the support of Ft. Drum."
McHugh's spokeswoman said the congressman was never approached by Health Net or PMA to insert any earmark, "And they wouldn't have gotten one, even if they did."