The U.S.S. John Murtha and a Congressman’s sketchy backstory

Abscam! Pork! Ah, Pennsylvania politics.

Wikimedia Commons/US Navy screenshot

Yesterday some former Philadelphia Flyers played street hockey (fun!) against a few members of the United States Navy aboard the Navy’s newest ship (double fun!). The occasion represented a cold-open of sorts for the vessel, which for now is stationed on the Delaware River at Penn’s Landing. Today members of the public can visit the ship for its official commissioning (triple fun!).  

But now the reminder that this is Pennsylvania and rarely can celebrations be separated from our state’s too-often questionable political culture: The ship being commissioned is called the USS Murtha, as in John Murtha. So Philadelphia’s big ol’ Saturday boat party will be in honor of a politician known as a pork-barrel king who was being investigated by the FBI.

Murtha did his work in the 12th District, in parts of Western and Central PA, so Philly residents might not be familiar with him or his tenure here. But he packed plenty of scandal into his career, from involvement in Abscam (the scandal made famous in American Hustle) right up until the end when the FBI ramped up a two-years long investigation into his dealings with lobbyists and contractors a few months before he died. No charges were ever brought.

Long before he was the subject of a federal investigation, Murtha grew up in Johnstown, Pa. He first won his seat through a special election in 1974 and maintained control of it until his death in 2010.

Six years after first taking power, Murtha was already facing trouble. Along with Philadelphia City Council members George X. Schwartz and Harry Jannotti, Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti and others, he became a target of the FBI’s infamous Abscam. The agency attempted to persuade politicians to assist a fictional Arab sheikh, such as by getting him citizenship in exchange for cash or investments (the ruse for the Philly City Council members was that the sheikh wanted to build a Philadelphia hotel).

Two undercover operatives, the men on which Bradley Cooper’s and Christian Bale’s characters are based in the movie, and a Philly lawyer met with Murtha. They offered him $50,000. Murtha denied the payout but entertained the possibility of accepting their money later. “We do business for a while,” he said, “maybe I’ll be interested and maybe I won’t.” He also told the undercover agents he was aware of two congressmen who had already accepted their money. For his role, the Feds named him an unindicted co-conspirator.      

Murtha gained renown in the ensuing years for being one of Congress’ most ardent supporters of the military and for vehemently opposing the Iraq War, but he never really shook the Abscam reputation. It didn’t help that he was also routinely tied to granting questionable federal earmarks for companies tied to him, his hometown, his family or his staffers.

For instance in the 2000s, Murtha, as the head of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, helped grant $36 million over eight years to a Johnstown defense company that had also happened to hire his brother’s lobbying firm. That defense company, which won the bids for the grants with little or no competition, would distribute federal grants to small Pennsylvania police departments, usually before election season, and explain to the departments that Murtha deserved the credit. He also got $200 million in federal earmarks directed to a tiny airport in Johnstown named after him.     

And that wasn’t even necessarily what set the Feds off. An FBI investigation into Murtha apparently began in 2007 after a witness told investigators the lobbying firm PMA Group was providing him with a free driver. That led to the FBI looking further into dealings with PMA Group, which was founded by one of Murtha’s friends and gave him millions over a two-decade period (that friend was later convicted for illegally funneling money to pols, including Murtha). Another witness said that if contractors wanted to get federal defense work they had to hire lobbyists with ties to Murtha and then work with a company in his district.

Murtha continually denied he was being investigated in the months and years before he died. Meanwhile, Esquire listed him among the top 10 worst congress members in 2008 for his opposition to ethics reform that would’ve prevented him from delivering so much earmarks to his district. The Washington Post called him “the master of pork-barrel politics” in the headline of his obituary.    

Still, a few months after his death the Navy announced it would name the ship after him. There was some controversy, but not because of Abscam, the Johnstown airport, the other sketchy earmarks or the FBI investigation. Some politicians opposed calling the ship the USS Murtha because of his Iraq war views.  

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