Rep. Joe Sestak, Pennsylvania's Democratic nominee for Senate, has reaped at least $119,650 in campaign contributions from employees of companies to which he has steered federal earmarks since 2008, according to public records.
There's nothing illegal - or unusual - on Capitol Hill about the practice of fund-raising from recipients of federal appropriations, but Sestak, a former three-star Navy admiral, has held himself to a higher standard.
On his campaign website, he says he returns contributions from an "organization or individual [who] has made a request for an appropriations project," or earmark.
Sestak often says the earmark system should be scrapped in favor of competitive grants.
In the meantime, Sestak believes in advocating for worthy projects in his district. He discloses details of his earmark requests on his official House website and places other restrictions on campaign contributions from recipients.
Since taking office in 2007, Sestak has won a total of $20.2 million in earmarks he sought individually, according to Legistorm, a website that compiles databases of congressional documents.
Most of Sestak's earmarks to for-profit corporations have gone to defense contractors who have operations in his Seventh District, centered in Delaware County. Sestak has also secured millions for universities, nonprofit organizations, and local governments.
Earmarking, the longtime practice of individual lawmakers tucking funding for pet projects into appropriations bills without competitive bidding, has come under increasing fire in recent years. Critics say the system creates possibilities for pay-to-play corruption, or at least the perception of it.
"We think it's a major problem because of the appearance of impropriety, of trading earmarks for campaign contributions," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"It's part of the reason people don't trust politicians," she said. "Sestak is better than most, but it's the system that's the problem."
This year, deficit hawks are again targeting earmarks, a relatively tiny part of the federal budget, amid public concern about the exploding national debt. Sestak's Senate opponent, Republican Pat Toomey, has pledged never to seek earmarks if elected.
"Joe Sestak is a leading advocate for changing the earmark process," his spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said. "He took the extra step on his own.. . . He's always said that it's not a perfect process when tens of thousands of checks are received, but it was a way to establish a tone of accountability and good governance."
In 2009, Sestak outlined a set of ethical guidelines he would follow after a political opponent criticized him for receiving donations for his first congressional campaign from philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who was a member of the board of Environmental Tectonics, a Bucks County defense contractor in line for an earmark. Sestak returned $4,600 Lenfest had given in 2007, when the earmark was awarded.
The guidelines, on his House website, say Sestak will not accept contributions from senior officials of companies during the period between his submission of an earmark request and its approval by the appropriations subcommittee; that is the time when a member of Congress has the most potential influence on the fate of the earmark.
Records show Sestak has stuck to that pledge in the majority of cases, but since 2009, he has received $22,000 in contributions from earmark recipients during the moratorium period.
"We give [Sestak] credit where credit is due," said David Williams, vice president for policy of Citizens Against Government Waste, a critic of earmarks. "But we'd prefer he not do it at all. You don't have to be transparent if you're not requesting earmarks."
He said 42 current members of the House have declined to seek earmarks, an all-time high.
Beginning last year, when appropriators were drawing up the earmarks for fiscal 2010, the House has included language that requires "congressionally directed expenditures" to be awarded in a competitive process.
"Congress put that in there to try to defuse criticism, but we still have no confidence that projects are awarded on a competitive basis," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's a red herring, in our opinion."
Earmarks are usually written in a way that ensures that a desired company gets the work, he said. "Either only one company makes a product, or a company is so far ahead on something that there is no real competition," Ellis said.
But $1.2 million listed in the records as going to Peak Beam Systems Inc., of Edgmont, actually went to a Navy research facility to develop specifications for a new laser guidance system for weapons, said Annie McManus, marketing director for the company.
"The Navy is going to evaluate products from around the country and decide which is best," McManus said. "The congressman said he didn't feel it was ethical to just set money aside to purchase our products."
Dragonfly Pictures Inc., of Essington, has received three earmarks totaling $2.4 million to develop automated controls for helicopter drones.
"We're doing good work that should be funded," said Mike Piasecki, president of the company, whose employees have contributed $28,300 to Sestak's campaigns.
House leaders have banned earmarks to for-profit companies in the appropriations bills being considered for the next fiscal year. The Senate is still willing to approve them.
The process of awarding earmarks has become more transparent since the 2006 midterm election, when voters rebelled against the influence-peddling scandals surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R., Calif.), and the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.
"I have no doubt if we keep the same system there will be more scandals," Ellis said. "It's fundamentally corrupt."