WASHINGTON -- A corporate lobbyist threatened the office of Rep. Devin Nunes that a local company would abandon the congressman's district unless the Visalia Republican supported an earmarked request for funding, Nunes said Friday.
But Nunes instead filed a complaint with the House ethics panel. Now, the previously secret complaint filed Feb. 20, 2008, against lobbyist Don Fleming has become public, amid broader revelations about an ongoing lobbying investigation.
"This is serious stuff," Nunes said in an interview, adding that "it really shows the bigger problem with the whole earmark process."
Fleming formerly worked for the now-defunct PMA Group, which is under scrutiny for allegedly trading campaign contributions for congressional support. Fleming told Nunes staffers that he was representing a Virginia-based PMA client named Quantico Arms & Tactical Supply, which he indicated worked with a Visalia-based firm called Specter Gear.
Known until 2004 as CQB Solutions, Specter Gear makes tactical equipment for police and military, including vests and holsters. The company received $599,177 in federal contracts in 2004 but has not received federal funding since, according to contract data compiled by the nonpartisan group OMB Watch.
Nunes filed his ethics committee complaint one week after a Feb. 14, 2008 conversation, in which Fleming allegedly threatened that Specter Gear would relocate its local jobs unless Nunes supported the funding request.
"What happened was wrong," Nunes said.
Nunes said he didn't know if Specter Gear officials were aware of Fleming's alleged warnings, and he said he has never talked to anyone from the company. Congressional public disclosure records do not show that PMA registered as a lobbyist either for Quantico or for Specter Gear.
"An important responsibility of any government relations professional is to communicate to policymakers the impact that their decisions have on our clients," Fleming said in a statement, confirmed Friday through spokesman Amos Snead.
Fleming's statement added that he "always adhered to the strictest code of professional ethics." Officials with Quantico and Specter Gear did not return calls for comment Friday.
Outside ethics watchdogs groups, though, applauded the complaint filed by Nunes.
"Good for him," said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The only way you can really deal with a bully is to expose him and take him on."
The ethics committee's official jurisdiction statement cites responsibility for "members, officers, and employees of the U.S. House of Representatives." Lobbyists are not technically covered, except so far as they interact with House members and staffers.
According to a chronology provided by Nunes' office, Fleming and a Quantico official first called upon a senior Nunes staffer on Nov. 27, 2007. Fleming provided brochures about Specter's work and indicated he would be seeking help with future appropriations. Fleming did not specify further details.
On Feb. 14, 2008, after Nunes had publicly declared his intention to forego earmark requests, Fleming called Nunes' office. In two phone calls that day, according to two senior Nunes staffers, Fleming warned that Specter Gear could move out of Visalia if the earmark requests weren't made.
Nunes considered it a threat and quietly filed his ethics committee complaint a week later. That March, Fleming sent an e-mail stating that Specter would not move out of the congressional district after all, but asked for help with a letter to the Defense Logistics Agency in support of the company's work.
Nunes did not send the letter. The original complaint remained quiet, until a senior Nunes staffer was interviewed for an hour by five investigators on Aug.4.
The ethics panel, formally called the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is reportedly examining ties between seven House members and PMA. The seven House members, none of whom are from California, serve on the House Appropriations Committee panel responsible for Pentagon spending.
The seven House members in question "personally steered more than $200 million in earmarks to clients of PMA Group in the past two years," the Washington Post reported. The now-defunct lobbying firm's founder, Paul Magliochetti, formerly worked for the chair of the defense appropriations subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.
The ongoing PMA investigation, and the complaint filed by Nunes, came to light Friday when the Post obtained a previously secret ethics committee report that detailed numerous investigations now underway. The 22-page report was mistakenly made available through file-sharing programs used by a junior staffer working on a home computer, the ethics panel reported.
The staffer has been fired.
"At any one time, the committee has dozens of matters regarding members, officers and employees before it," the panel declared in a press statement, adding that "no inference to any misconduct can be inferred from the fact that a matter is simply before the committee."