U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, helped dole out nearly $24 million in "earmarks" this year to private companies, school districts and universities in Kansas.
But a new study has found that individuals and political committees tied to those special-interest groups made more than $46,000 in campaign donations to Tiahrt — the second-highest total of donations from those groups to any House member.
Tiahrt, an eight-term Republican congressman from Wichita who serves on the Appropriations Committee, insisted there's no tie between earmarks he voted for and campaign contributions he received. He said his only goal is to help Kansas.
"It's related to building the economy in Kansas," Tiahrt said of earmarks, which call for federal money to be spent on specific projects, usually in a lawmaker's home district. "I feel like the people of Kansas sent me to Washington to try to do something about their problems. One of them is the tough economy."
But as Tiahrt's campaign for Senate against Rep. Jerry Moran zeroes in on the Aug. 3 primary, Tiahrt's handling of earmarks is emerging as a campaign issue.
In a recent TV ad, Moran accuses his fellow Republican of voting "to hide earmarks from public scrutiny," a claim Tiahrt vehemently disputed.
Nonetheless, similar questions have forced Tiahrt to address a House ethics inquiry that focused on ties between his earmark requests and campaign donations. The investigation ended in March with no action taken.
Moran also pursued $5.3 million in earmarks this year, but he pointed out that his requests are for nonprofit groups, such as local police departments and Kansas State University, which are all in his district.
"Earmarks used to be a much less utilized practice," Moran said. "In that light, we developed a system only making requests for public entities like strengthening education at Kansas State University …"
The new study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that Moran netted only $1,500 in campaign contributions from interests tied to earmarks.
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