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Earmark king's promise of jobs in Pa. falls short

In some cases, the government has spent more than $1 million to create each new position.

FORD CITY, Pa. - Rep. John P. Murtha's record of bringing home money from Washington - at a current rate of $100 million a year - has become the envy of Capitol Hill colleagues and a subject of grateful awe in a stretch of Western Pennsylvania desperate for new jobs. In Congress, Murtha beats everybody in loading legislation with earmarks, federal funds steered to chosen contractors without the usual reviews.

But after two decades of Murtha-directed federal investment here, a look at the results shows his promises of jobs often fall short. In some cases, the government has spent more than $1 million to create each new position.

Of 16 local companies Murtha has helped win earmarks, a Washington Post analysis shows, 10 have generated far fewer jobs than he and corporate leaders forecast, and half those firms have already closed operations in his district.

On the positive side, four firms expanded dramatically with the help, although their success has sometimes been fleeting. Scores of jobs generated by Murtha earmarks began disappearing soon after projects were completed.

The results show how inefficient lawmakers' pork-barrel spending can be in producing sustained employment, the goal often cited by Murtha and other members of Congress. Amid one of the worst recessions in modern times, these results add to the long-standing Washington debate over the wisdom of parceling out taxpayer money in an ad-hoc system shaped by favoritism and political muscle.

"If you looked at Congressman Murtha's efforts in the same way you look at an investor's efforts, it's easy to see that the business model originally conceived hasn't really panned out in terms of its rate of return," said Peter Fiske, a former defense executive in Murtha's district.

Fiske helped found RAPT Industries, which Murtha once forecast would generate 45 new jobs. It shut its four-person office earlier this year.

Pumping earmarked money into fledgling companies often backfired, Fiske said, because there probably wasn't a rigorous assessment of each project's risks and potential.

Murtha, 78, a Democrat and chair of the House defense appropriations panel, defends his record and the earmarking practice as a way to create jobs in this hard-hit former coal-mining region.

"Let me tell you: We look at jobs. How do we attract jobs?" he said. "We appreciate the support we get from people who appreciate the work that I've done, but it's all about jobs."

Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey added that, as a rule, new businesses have high failure rates.

"Obviously there are times when companies fail to meet projections, particularly small companies that have trouble adapting to the Defense Department's ever-changing priorities and requirements," he said. "Have we seen startup companies offer a good product only to fail in the end? Unfortunately, yes. But, we've seen a far greater number of companies come to Western Pennsylvania and find success."

Despite billions in federal contracts Murtha has steered to the region in the last 10 years, joblessness in his distressed district has not improved. Six of nine counties in his district saw their unemployment rate rise or not budge from 1998 to 2008, state records show.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said members of Congress in economically depressed areas such as rural Pennsylvania had tried for years to use earmarks to generate industry. But he contends the money is wasted because those areas still have some of the lowest household incomes and highest unemployment rates in the nation.

"Just throwing as much money as possible at your community, or strong-arming larger defense contractors into moving into the area, isn't a sustainable business model, because someday Rep. Murtha isn't going to be chairman anymore," Ellis said.

In the Johnstown area, nearly everyone credits Murtha with revitalizing the region after its coal mines and steel mills began shutting down in the 1980s.

"We wouldn't have anything around here if it weren't for Jack Murtha," said Don Bowen, a retiree of Windber. His tiny hamlet gained new life from the Windber Research Institute and Kuchera Defense Systems, which Murtha has helped grow with more than $200 million in earmarks. Kuchera, an electronics supplier to the military, grew to 350 employees but is now the subject of a contracting-fraud investigation.

Murtha's earmarks are also under scrutiny as part of a Justice Department probe eyeing contractors who received them, and the former lobbying firm that enjoyed the most success in obtaining them for its clients. The PMA Group and its founder had close ties to Murtha and other defense appropriators.

This month, a congressional ethics office closed its preliminary review into Murtha's relationship with PMA and recommended that the House ethics committee need take no further action in its own separate investigation.