Jack Murtha

© Image Copyright Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: PD-USGov-Congress


  • Former Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania
  • Called Iraq War “un-winnable” and described U.S. military as a “catalyst for violence”
  • Claimed that U.S. Marines committed “murder” in Haditha
  • Died February 8, 2010

John “Jack” Murtha was born to Catholic parents on June 17, 1932 in New Martinsville, West Virginia. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 20 and served until 1955. After receiving his discharge from active duty, Murtha remained in the Marine Forces Reserve and relocated to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where he ran a small car-washbusiness. He also attended the University of Pittsburgh on theG.I. Bill, graduating with a degree in economics in 1962. In 1966 Murtha volunteered for service in the Vietnam War as a battalion staff officer, receiving a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Questions laterarose about the circumstances surrounding the issuance of his two Purple Hearts, as CNS News notedthat Murtha, at various times, had offered inconsistent accounts of his combat injuries.

Upon returning home from Vietnam in 1967, Murtha launched a career in politics as a member of the Democratic Party. After Republican incumbent John Saylor put down Murtha’s bid to take Pennsylvania’s 22nd District seat in the U.S. Congress in 1968, Murtha served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1969-74. When Congressman Saylor died in October 1973, Murtha entered the race to determine, in a February 1974 special election, who would succeed Saylor in representing what was now Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District. Murtha emerged victorious and was subsequently reelected 17 times over the next 34 years.

The “Abscam” Scandal

In the early 1980s, Murtha was named as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the so-called “Abscam” (a contraction of “Abdul scam”) sting operation that investigated legislative corruption from 1978-80. In that initiative, undercover FBI agents posed as representatives of a fictitious company called “Abdul Enterprises” and offered bribes to more than 30 members of the House and Senate, in exchange for political favors to a pair of non-existent Middle Eastern sheiks named “Kambir Abdul Rahman” and “Yasser Habib,” both of whom purportedly had millions of dollars that they wished to invest in the United States. Each of the legislators who was approached—one of them being Murtha—was offered a handsome financial reward in exchange for such favors as: (a) facilitating the approval of “private immigration bills” that would allow the sheiks associated with “Abdul Enterprises” to circumvent normal U.S. immigration procedures; and (b) facilitating the procurement of building permits and licenses for casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For additional details of the Abscam case, click here.

Murtha, for his part, rejected a blatant $50,000 bribe, but not the influence-buying tactics. He unambiguously left open the possibility that he might be willing to “do business” with the “sheik” and his retinue at some point in the future. A 54-minute FBI videotape shows Murtha—who was then a member of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct—telling the FBI undercover agents: “You know, you made an offer. It might be that I might change my mind someday.” Moreover, Murtha explained that he simply needed some time to get to know the “sheik” and his cohorts a bit better, and to develop a sense that he could trust them, before he would be ready to risk accepting such a large bribe: “I want to deal with you guys awhile before I make any transactions at all, period. After we’ve done some business, well, then I might change my mind [and agree to the scheme]. I’m going to tell you this. If anybody can do it—I am not bullshi**ing you fellows—I can get it done my way. There’s no question about it.”

“You know,” Murtha added cautiously, “we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t.” “I’ve gotta be completely to the point where I can disclaim anything,” the congressman stressed. “And that’s why I’m so careful about making any deals.” Murtha said that in lieu of accepting the bribe just yet, he would be glad to offer political favors to “Habib” in exchange for money which the “sheik” might make available, through Murtha, for businesses in the latter’s congressional district. Said Murtha: “I wanna do business with you. I mean I want to get the goddamn jobs in the area. You know, if you, the bank deposits in my area. [There’s] nothing I’d like better. Later on, you know, after we’ve dealt awhile, you know we might change our minds. We might want to do more business. But right now, I think I can do more this way than any other way.”

Murtha proceeded to crudely express his concern that the public might someday find out about his secret willingness to put a price tag on his political influence: “When I make a fu**in’ deal, I want to make sure that I know exactly what I’m doing …  And what I’m sayin’ is, a few investments in my district, a few, you know, is big to me … to a couple of banks which would get their attention. And investment in a business where you could legitimately say to me — when I say legitimately, I’m talking about so these bastards up here can’t say to me, well, why, in eight years from now, that’s possible, we’d never hear a thing for eight years, but all at once, ah, some dumb bastard would go start talking eight years from now, ah, about the whole thing and say, ‘[expletive], ah, this happened,’ then he, then he, in order to get immunity so he doesn’t go to jail, he starts talking and fingering people and then the [expletive] all falls apart.”

In yet another exchange, one of the undercover investigators told Murtha: “You give us the banks where you want the money deposited,” to which the congressman replied, “All right. How much money we talking about?” “Well, you tell me,” said the investigator. Murtha retorted: “Well, let me find out what is a reasonable figure that will get their attention, because there are a couple of banks that have really done me some favors in the past, and I’d like to put some money in….”

Approximately a month after the secretly videotaped meeting with Murtha, attorney Howard Criden—the congressman’s co-conspirator, who was later convicted and sentenced to six years in prison—wrote in his affidavit: “Yesterday, Feb. 1, [Democrat Congressman Frank] Thompson called and told me that Murtha was ready to go,” and that Murtha had indicated “during January that he was not ready to do business but would be willing to do so in the future.” “Congressman Murtha of Pennsylvania would be willing,” Criden added, “to enter into an agreement similar to that of the other congressmen”—i.e., taking $50,000 in cash from the “sheiks” in exchange for legislative favors.

In the end, seven members of Congress (six of them Democrats) accepted bribe money from the “sheiks.” The House Ethics Committee appointed a special prosecutor, Barrett Prettyman, to investigate the matter. Then, in early 1981 the Committee became concerned that Murtha, too, had violated House rules by failing to report the attempted bribery to law-enforcement authorities, and Prettyman at that time began looking into Murtha’s activities. According to the Wall Street Journal, the prosecutor was “rumored to be offering deals in exchange for testimony that would take the scandal inside the office of [House] Speaker O’Neill”—a reference to Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, the Democratic U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts. At that point, a jittery O’Neill moved to shut down the Murtha probe as quickly as possible—a decision that so infuriated the special prosecutor, that he promptly resigned in protest.

Murtha subsequently testified in federal court that he had gone so far as to call his “immigration guy” to discuss the possibility of helping the “sheik”—who had just offered Murtha a $50,000 bribe—to resolve his immigration concerns. Ultimately, the congressman avoided prosecution by testifying against two House colleagues who had been implicated in the FBI sting. In other words, Murtha himself did precisely what he had feared someone else might someday do: “start talking … in order to get immunity so he doesn’t go to jail.”

Sabotaging the Iraq War Effort

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Murtha cultivated a reputation as one of Congress’ most vocal critics of the war effort. Initially (inOctober 2002) he had voted to authorize America’s use of military force against Iraq, albeit grudgingly: “I only voted for it,” he explained, “because I [had] said to [Vice President] Cheney and the President, ‘You have to go to the U.N.,’ and when they did that, what the hell could I do?”

During the second term of the Bush administration, Murtha consistently assailed the manner in which the Iraq War was being prosecuted. At a May 2004 news conference with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Murtha asserted that Bush’s strategy in Iraq had made the war “un-winnable.” He acknowledged, however, that “[i]t would be devastating to pull out now.” But in a November 2005 statement, Murtha reversed his position on the matter of troop withdrawal. Describing the military as “stretched thin,” the congressman alleged that “the Army is broken”; that the “future of our military is at risk”; and that “the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq” was not only “impeding … progress” there, but was acting as a “catalyst for violence.”

In May 2006 Murtha reacted swiftly and angrily to unsubstantiated allegations that a squad of eight U.S. Marines had killed, without cause, some two-dozen unarmed civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. Appearing on ABC’s This Week, the congresman said that the Marines had “overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” “There’s no question in my mind about what happened here,” declared Murtha. “There was no gunfire [from the Iraqis]. They [the American Marines] killed four people in a taxi and then in addition to that, they went into the rooms and killed them.” He further alleged that the U.S. military was trying to “cover up” what had occurred in Haditha.

In the May 17, 2006 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, the host said to Murtha: “[W]hen you say ‘cold blood,’ Congressman, a lot of people think you’re basically saying you have got some civilians sitting in a room or out in a field and they’re executed just on purpose.” Murthareplied, “That’s exactly what happened.”

(NOTE: By June 2008, it had become apparent that Murtha’s allegations against the eight Marines were entirely unfounded. Charges had been dismissed against six of the eight, and a seventh had been acquitted. Moreover, two of the Marines—Frank D. Wuterich and Justin Sharratt—filed defamation and slandersuitsagainst Murtha. In April 2009, Wuterich’s lawsuit was dismissed when the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that federal employees have immunity from lawsuits arising out of acts they undertake in the course of their official duties. And in July 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Justin Sharratt’s suit as well. In January 2012 Wuterich pleaded guilty to one count of “negligent dereliction of duty” and received no jail time.)

In June 2006 Murtha voted against a congressional proposal to formally declare that Iraq was a crucial theater in the overall war on terror, and that the setting of a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops would be unwise. Four months later, he voted to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq at the earliest practicable date.

In early 2007 Murtha spoke out against the Bush administration’s planned troop “surge”—where an additional 21,500 soldiers would be deployed to Iraq in an effort to quell the insurgency there. Vowing “to stop this surge,” Murtha statedthat “surges have not worked in the past” because enemy forces “disappear, and then they come back later on.” “To think that a surge will work is, in my estimation, false thinking,” added Murtha, declaring that “we have to turn this [war effort] over to the Iraqis.” Contrary to Murtha’s prediction, however, the troop surge dramatically turned the tide of the war in America’s favor and actually enabled the U.S. to win the war decisively—only to have the victory squandered a few years later when President Barack Obama—acting against the counsel if his miltary advisors—withdrew all American troops from Iraq without negotiating a status-of-forces agreement and leaving behind a military presence to keep the peace.

Not only was Murtha unapologetic vis-a-vis his erroneous prediction regarding the troop surge, but he actually signed on to another Democratic campaign to discredit the entire war effort: He voted in favor of a June 2008 resolution drawn up by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, to investigate the feasibility of impeaching George W. Bush for “high crimes and misdemeanors”—as punishment for having led the U.S. to war in the first place.

In July 2008 Murtha asserted that if pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq were to result, as critics of such a policy were warning, in “a bloodbath,” the guilt would rest with the Iraqi people and not with the U.S. Congress. “Many have threatened that there will be chaos, a bloodbath, when the United States redeploys from Iraq, and this in fact may be the case,” Murtha said in a speech at the National Press Club. “If they continue to choose to spill blood, it will not be on the conscience of the United States.” Ethnic violence in Iraq, he elaborated, would be “a continuation of decades of its own conflicts, which they and they alone can solve.”

Accusing His Constituents of “Racism”

On October 15, 2008, Murtha courted controversy when—lamenting that voters in his home district were not supporting Illinois Senator Barack Obama‘s presidential candidacy in overwhelming numbers (though Obama was in fact leading in local polls)—the congressman accused those voters of being racists. “I think Obama is going to win, but I don’t think it’s going to be a runaway,” said Murtha. “… There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area. The older population is more hesitant [to embrace a black candidate].” When Murtha’s remarks drew instant media attention, the congressman said the next day: “[The racism is] better than it was a few weeks ago. It’s better than it was a few months ago.” The following week, in an October 20 interview with a local news channel, Murtha tried to further clarify his remarks: “What I mean is there’s still folks that have a problem voting for someone because they are black…. This whole area, years ago, was really redneck.”

More Scandals

Abscam was not Murtha’s only involvement in financial chicanery. In 2004 the congressman steered more than $20 million in federal appropriationsto at least ten defense companies represented by KSA consulting—a lobbying firm where Murtha’s brother, Robert “Kit” Murtha, was a senior partner, and where Carmen V. Scialabba, a former aide for John Murtha, was a top official. At that time, Congressman Murtha was the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which he also had chaired for six years before the Democrats lost control of the House in 1994. As The American Spectator noted: “Murtha’s subcommittee staff helps write Defense appropriations bills and oversees the lucrative earmark requests forwarded by Democrats. The contracts for KSA clients in the bill were entirely earmarks), the L.A. Times found. The Times also reported that most of KSA’s defense clients had hired the firm only after Kit Murtha became a senior partner in 2002.” In October 2005, The Hill reported that Rep. Murtha had been the top House recipient of campaign contributions from the defense industry in each of the previous three years.

These defense-industry contributions often resulted in massive financial benefits for the donors. Consider Paul Magliocchetti, who in 1989 left his post as a staffer for the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, where Murtha served as either chairman or ranking member from 1989-2010, in order to establish the now-defunct lobbying firm known as the PMA Group. PMA specialized in obtaining earmarks for defense contractors and became one of Murtha’s largest sources of campaign cash. Between 1989 and 2009, PMA’s lobbyists and corporate clients gave Murtha more than $2.3 million in campaign contributions. In 2007-08, Murtha and two fellow Democrats on the defense subcommittee steered $137 million to defense contractors who were clients of PMA—i.e., they were paying PMA to help them get contracts for government business. In November 2006, bestselling author and columnist Michelle Malkin reported that Magliocchetti had “funneled some $300,000 in campaign contributions to Murtha over the last three election cycles—either through his company, PMA, or its clients,” and that “in 2006 alone, PMA clients received at least 60 earmarks worth some $95 million.”According to the Vail Daily News: “Shortly after the 2008 election, the FBI raided PMA’s offices as part of a criminal investigation. In a separate development in January 2009, FBI agents raided the offices of a defense contractor from Murtha’s district—Windber-based Kuchera Defense Systems Inc.—that had received millions of dollars in earmarks sponsored by Murtha while contributing tens of thousands to his campaigns. A year later, Kuchera was suspended from bidding on government contracts because of allegations that it paid more than $200,000 in kickbacks to another defense contractor.”

Harper’s magazine reports: “The CEO of … Kuchera Defense Systems … was the director of a non-profit group that the Washington Post described in 2006 as ‘a gathering point for defense contractors and lobbyists with business before Murtha’s defense appropriations subcommittee, and for Pennsylvania businesses and universities that have thrived on federal money obtained by Murtha.’ The non-profit’s board of directors included three lobbyists from KSA Consulting, a firm which employed former Murtha staffer Carmen Scialabba (who created the non-profit) and Kit Murtha, the congressman’s brother.”

Further questions about Murtha’s ethics—and his use (or misuse) of taxpayer money—were raised by the expenses associated with the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania—the congressman’s home district. As a result of Murtha’s influence, more than $150 million in taxpayer funds were funneled to this airport between 1999 and 2009, including $800,000 (from the February 2009 stimulus bill) which was allocated for repaving an “alternate runway.” The facility is equipped with a $7 million air-traffic-control tower, a $14 million hangar, and an $18 million, state-of-the-art runway. Notwithstanding these massive expenditures, only three flights per day originate from Murtha’s airport—and all three go to Washington, DC.

Murtha’s Reputation for Excessive Spending

Murtha was a longtime defender of the practice of earmarking), which, he said, greatly benefited his constituents. In particular, he was consistently prone to using taxpayer money to finance his own political pet projects. In 2003 the Pennsylvania Report called Murtha one of “Pennsylvania’s most powerful congressmen” and a “master of crossing the aisle and bringing pork into his district.”

In February 2008 the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), which promotes fiscal responsibility and federal earmarks reform, named Murtha as Congress’ 2007 “Porker of the Year”—for “flouting the rules and playing games with reform, while filing spending bills with pork and arrogantly threatening anyone that challenges his authority.” According to CAGW, Murtha had secured 72 earmarks worth $149.2 million for his district in fiscal year 2007. “Rep. Jack Murtha has long been known inside the Beltway for using threats, power plays, and backroom deals to control spending decisions,” said the organization. “There is an area of the House floor known as ‘Murtha’s corner,’ where the legendary appropriator dispenses earmarks. The overwhelming vote for ‘Porker of the Year’ shows that his shameful behavior is attracting attention throughout the country.”

Each year from 2007-09, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)—which reserves most of its criticisms for Republicans—anointed Murtha as the U.S. Congress’s “King of Pork,” in recognition of the $192 million in earmarks he had secured for his district in 2008, coupled with another $134 million in earmarks he had requested during the first half of 2009. CREW executive director Melanie Sloan put it this way: “The more Rep. Murtha’s dealings are exposed, the more we all learn about how Congress really operates and the more disgusted the public becomes. CREW will continue to shine the light on Rep. Murtha until the congressman changes his ways or is indicted. I’d take a bet on which is the more likely outcome.” Murtha glibly shrugged off Sloan’s comments by saying: “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district.” To view CREW’s extensive files on Murtha’s corruption, click here.

In 2008, Esquire magazine named Murtha one of the 10 worst members of Congress because of: (a) his opposition to ethics reform, and (b) the $100 million+ worth of earmarks that he secured for his district each year.

In 2009 the Wall Street Journal called Murtha “one of Congress’s most unapologetic earmarkers.”

Murtha’s Death

On February 8, 2010, Murtha died of complications from gallbladder surgery at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

Additional Information

For information on Murtha’s voting record on a wide array of key issues during the course of his legislative career, click here.

For additional information on Murtha, click here.

Additional Resources

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