Specter’s picking up Murtha’s mantle – of pork

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Last month, Sen. Arlen Specter, together with fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey, introduced a bill called the Biosecurity and Vaccine Development Improvement Act.

This is legislation ostensibly intended to “ensure our country has the resources necessary to protect the American people in the event of a disease outbreak or terrorist attack.”

However, it could have another major implication: Keeping money flowing to one of recently deceased Rep. Jack Murtha’s pet recipients of taxpayer dollars.

In Specter’s remarks introducing the bill, he noted:

“This legislation would provide funding for a public/private partnership vaccine developing and manufacturing facility.” It was an innocuous-sounding and non-specific statement, but one which those watching the flow of money out of government coffers say may have denoted a fresh effort to steer taxpayer dollars to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).

Specter has been open in his support for UPMC as a qualified candidate for a facility of the sort envisaged by the legislation, having held a hearing in Pittsburgh on the matter last year.

Furthermore, Specter and UPMC advocates say his support is not surprising, given UPMC’s reputation as a health care provider and employer, and given Specter’s history of championing funding for members of the health care and life sciences industries (he recently steered $10 billion in stimulus money to the National Institutes of Health, for example).

However, Specter’s critics see his support for UPMC as more problematic: UPMC itself is an entity with extensive ties to Murtha, as is the firm that reportedly operates it, Pharmathene. Murtha, while known for bringing home the bacon, also had a history of backing projects in circumstances where major ethical and value-for-money questions arose. UPMC is among those.

According to an August 2009 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article, Murtha “consulted with UPMC on the need to increase vaccine capacity in the United States” and held hearings on the same topic as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. Last year, a Harper’s item exposing certain work of Murtha, and members of Murtha’s so-called “favor factory,” noted that the longtime congressman had procured an $8.5 million earmark for UPMC. That same item also reported that Pharmathene itself had benefited from Murtha earmarking.

This year, Pharmathene made news after it wound up as the beneficiary of a sole-source vaccine contract following one Tara O’Toole becoming Under Secretary for the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security. O’Toole reportedly has ties to the so-called Murtha favor factory, but in addition, she is a one-time head of UPMC’s Center for Biosecurity and previously advised the Alliance for Biosecurity, in which Pharmathene plays a major role.

All this leaves UPMC, for better or for worse, appearing rather entangled in the scandal-ridden friends-of-Murtha mess—and Specter potentially caught up in it, too.

Specter, while not as closely associated with UPMC, has substantially aided it (looking back, frequently, it bears noting, in collaboration with ex-Sen. Rick Santorum).

Furthermore, a cursory review of Specter announcements of financial assistance to UPMC would indicate this was especially so in the run-up to Specter’s last tough re-election battle, where he faced Pat Toomey, against whom he may wind up running again this November.

Back in July 2004, Specter announced $1.65 million for UPMC’s Military Force Protection and Injury Prevention Program. In December 2003, Specter announced $503,000 for UPMC’s Horizon center for “stabilizing the workforce for patient care.” Specter also notes on his website that he secured $1.63 million for UPMC’s St. Margaret’s Hospital’s Emergency Department and Bioterrorism Decontamination Center in the Fiscal Year 2003 Appropriations Bill. And, a September 2003 release broadcasts that “Specter and Santorum Announce $17.5 million for UPMC.”

In view of this, observers may not find it shocking that Specter would now be introducing the Biosecurity and Vaccine Development Improvement Act, which seems likely to benefit UPMC further.

Moreover, observers might not be shocked to note that just as Murtha benefited from well over $100,000 in campaign contributions from UPMC employees during his career, beginning with the 2004 election cycle in which he found himself in the fight of his political life, Specter has collected over $80,000 in contributions from UPMC personnel according to OpenSecrets.org.

UPMC employees are clearly grateful for Specter’s help, and Specter sees nothing to be shy about. According to his spokeswoman, Kate Kelly, “As a senior member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Senator Specter has consistently supported funding for hospitals and universities that serve to enhance our nation’s greatest capital assets: health and education. UPMC, a nonprofit health system that provides quality healthcare and employs over 50,000 Pennsylvanians, fits this bill.”

That should not, however, suggest that Specter’s support for UPMC will not, to some degree, be made an issue should he face Toomey again this November. The Club for Growth, a long time Specter foe and Toomey advocate disputes his views on the worthiness of UPMC funding. Per Mike Connolly, their spokesman, “Senator Specter’s pet project is another example of how earmarks and pork spending are driving our nation off am economic cliff. Soon enough, Senator Specter will find out that Pennsylvania voters can’t be bought. ‘Me-first’ politics and ‘me-first’ politicians have got to go, and responsible, limited-government conservatives like Pat Toomey have to stand up and fight for fiscal sanity.”

Where Pennsylvania voters will come down on this, of course, is the big question. Murtha, for all the controversy surrounding his support for pet projects benefiting campaign donors and often promoted by friends and former staffers, won re-election handily, even in recent years when that scrutiny became heightened. Specter, however, currently finds himself in the midst of a Senate race rated by Real Clear Politics as a “toss-up,” in a year when voters remain concerned about both jobs and the size of the deficit (itself closely associated to spending like that supported by Specter by fiscal conservatives, such as those backed by the Club for Growth). It would not be unreasonable to assume that UPMC employees who have donated to Specter see his work to steer funds in their employer’s direction as beneficial from a jobs perspective. However, other Pennsylvanians may perceive that they are being stiffed with a bill that, were it not for UPMC’s political savviness and high profile, might be at least smaller.

Either way, this is unlikely to be the last anyone hears this year about UPMC and Specter’s support of it.

Liz Mair is an online communications consultant and blogger. Her clients include Republican candidates and committees and she was the Republican National Committee’s online communications director in 2008.

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