WASHINGTON — With the current chairman under fire for his connections to a lobbying firm under FBI investigation, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., could be in line to take over the chairmanship of the House panel that oversees Pentagon funding.
But even as that possibility looms, Dicks himself faces increased scrutiny for his relationship to the lobbying firm at the heart of the investigation. So far, Dicks hasn't been sucked into the latest earmark-campaign contribution scandal on Capitol Hill, though he and a handful of other lawmakers have skated around the edges.
Dicks adamantly denies any wrongdoing and said he hasn't had any contact with the FBI or the House Ethics Committee, which is also investigating the PMA Group and its ties to members of Congress.
Outside congressional watchdog groups say there is no evidence Dicks has done anything illegal. Yet they also say he could find himself increasingly on the hot seat if Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., is forced out as chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee. Dicks is the No. 2 Democrat on the committee.
"Obviously Dicks is a very powerful lawmaker," said Steve Ellis, vice president of programs for the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. "You have to think everyone on that subcommittee will be scrutinized. PMA had its tentacles into that subcommittee."
Dicks, in an interview, admits knowing Paul Magliocchetti, the founder of PMA and a former top aide on the defense appropriations subcommittee. Without prompting, he provided a list of the more than $27 million in earmarks he secured for four PMA clients, defense firms with Navy-related contracts, over the past three years.
But Dicks rejected any suggestion that the earmarks -- congressionally directed spending in an appropriations bill -- were in any way related to the more than $133,000 in campaign contributions he has received from Magliocchetti, PMA's political action committee, its other employees and its clients since 2001.
"I haven't done anything wrong as it relates to PMA," said Dicks, who is in his 17th term in the House.
Dicks said the earmarks have produced jobs in his congressional district. Though the four firms are not headquartered in his district, they all have offices in Bremerton near the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, the submarine base at Bangor and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport.
"It's all about jobs," Dicks said. "I help small companies in my district that are doing meritorious work. That's my job."
Over the years, Dicks and Murtha have worked together on a number of issues and taken overseas trips together. But Dicks is not considered a Murtha confidante or one of the chairman's lieutenants.
If Murtha departs, Dicks isn't automatically appointed chairman. While seniority is a key factor, it is not the only one. Dicks is also chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee, another spending panel with jurisdiction over natural resource issues. Dicks may decide he doesn't want to give up that subcommittee.
The congressman declined to speculate on Murtha's fate or who might take over the defense subcommittee chairmanship. Murtha has a reputation as a survivor.
Just a year ago, PMA was among the largest lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., with almost three dozen lobbyists, most of whom had congressional or Pentagon experience.
But the firm's office was raided in November by FBI agents. The company has closed its doors.
In addition, another senior Democratic member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., has acknowledged material has been subpoenaed by the Justice Department from his congressional office, his state office and the political action committee he controls. Several of Visclosky's aides have been subpoenaed.
The House Ethics Committee, formally known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, issued a terse statement in June saying it was investigating any links between lawmakers and PMA. The committee offered no specifics and did not name any House members. A House resolution prompting the investigation mentioned "misconduct" and "improper involvement."
PMA clients received more than $300 million in earmarks in the current fiscal year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. PMA was also contributing to the campaigns of House members -- according to OpenSecrets.org, more than $40 million between 1998 and 2009.
Dicks was tied for fifth among House members when it came to earmarks for PMA clients in the 2009, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. He secured four earmarks worth $8.8 million.
Murtha topped the list with $16.2 million worth of earmarks for PMA clients, followed by Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., $15.7 million; Florida Rep. Bill Young, the top Republican on the defense appropriations subcommittee, $14 million; and Visclosky, $10.6 million. Tied for fifth with Dicks was Rep. James Moran, D-Va.,
Dicks engineered earmarks for Advanced Acoustic Concepts, headquartered in Happauge, N.Y.; Planning System Inc. of Reston, Va.; Concurrent Technologies Corp. of Johnstown, Pa., and 21 Century Systems of Omaha, Neb.
Several of those companies are non-profits, and one is privately held. Concurrent Technologies is based in Murtha's Pennsylvania congressional district.
The projects ranged from providing consulting and technical advice on environmental issues for the Navy to providing sensor systems for surface and underwater maritime surveillance.
Dicks is also seeking $5 million in the coming fiscal year for a Concurrent Technologies program to better integrate Navy operations.
Concurrent Technologies employs 40 people in its Bremerton office. The other companies did not respond to telephone calls seeking employment data, though Advance Acoustic Concepts has 10 people on its automated phone directory.
Another company that Dicks has secured earmarks for, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences of Ann Arbor, Mich., said the money will allow it to nearly double the number of employees in its Bremerton office to 15.
Rebecca Taylor, a senior vice president with the center, said the firm had been doing work for the Navy in the Bremerton area before the earmarks.
"It's absolutely above board," she said.
The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences was not a PMA client, but it did hire as one of its lobbyists Tim Thompson, a former Dicks' district director, Taylor said.
Over the last four elections, Dicks raised a total of nearly $3.8 million for his campaign. That included $133,050 from the PMA PAC, its employees and clients, according to a CQ Moneyline analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
Dicks said he has kept his legislative duties and campaign fundraising strictly separate.
"I have never talked to any of these companies about campaign contributions," Dicks said. "I had no personal dealings with PMA. I didn't play golf, I didn't play tennis. My dealings were all highly professional. I had no idea there was a problem with PMA."
Dicks said all of the projects he secured earmarks for were "worthwhile;" he and his staff vetted them and the Navy had no objections.
"I would have supported these companies if they had not made contributions," he said. "They do legitimate work."
The congressman said swapping earmarks for campaign contributions is illegal.
"I know, I am a lawyer, Dicks said.
Dicks has supported earmark reform in Congress, including cutting the number of earmarks in half and requiring House members to disclose their earmark requests on their office Web sites.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, another non-partisan congressional watchdog group, remains skeptical.
"He is the kind of person all defense contractors want to curry favor with," Sloan said. "I am not suggesting Mr. Dicks did anything illegal. But don't believe it when they say there is no relationship between contributions and earmarks. As this story progresses, he bears watching. But he is not alone. A lot of members received PMA money."