WASHINGTON (AP) — The Office of Congressional Ethics is turning over evidence to the Justice Department that suggests some defense contractors thought their campaign donations were influencing the award of special-interest projects, the ethics office announced Thursday.

The move by the ethics office's board focused renewed attention on the politically sensitive subject of congressional earmarks. It also was a slap at the House Ethics Committee, which had concluded early this year that the evidence did not support a finding that any House member broke a law or regulation.

Since 2008, the Justice Department has been investigating members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee who received a flood of campaign money over the years from the lobbying firm PMA and its defense contractor clients. The subcommittee had been chaired by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who died in February. PMA went out of business after FBI agents raided its offices.

Conducting its own examination of Murtha and six other members of his subcommittee who took money from PMA's clients, the ethics office zeroed in on Reps. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., and Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan.

The ethics office concluded there was reason to believe that Visclosky solicited contributions in exchange for official acts. The ethics office's investigation found that in Tiahrt's case, there were potential connections between appropriations requests from PMA clients and the clients' campaign donations to Tiahrt.

Visclosky was subpoenaed a year ago in the ongoing Justice Department probe, acknowledging that a federal grand jury had demanded documents from his office, some employees and his campaign committees.

The House Ethics Committee reviewed the evidence gathered by the congressional ethics office on Visclosky and Tiahrt and closed its inquiry without taking any action against either of them, nor against any of the other five subcommittee members.

The ethics committee's inaction seemed to be the end of the matter. However, Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Paul Hodes, D-N.H., asked the ethics office to publicly release its evidence. The ethics office board declined, saying to do so would undercut an ongoing criminal investigation. Instead, the ethics office voted to forward its material to the Justice Department for use in the criminal probe.

"The evidence pertains to a factual finding by the OCE board that certain persons and companies saw their campaign donations as affecting decisions about earmarks," the ethics office said in a statement that did not identify which members of Congress the evidence involved.



Congressional Ethics Office report: http://ethics.house.gov/Media/PDF/PMA%20Final%20Report.pdf