$4.5 million for a boat that nobody wanted

Tucked away on Seattle's Portage Bay, a sleek, 85-foot speedboat sat idle for years — save for an annual jaunt to maintain its engine.

The Navy paid $4.5 million to build the boat. But months before the hull ever touched water, the Navy gave the boat to the University of Washington. The school never found a use for it, either.

Why would the Navy waste taxpayer dollars on a boat that nobody wanted?

Blame it on Sen. Patty Murray and Congressmen Norm Dicks and Brian Baird. All three exercised their political muscle to slip language into a 2002 spending bill to force the Navy to buy the boat from Edmonds shipbuilder Guardian Marine International.

Year after year, the Washington lawmakers did favors for the tiny company, inserting four "earmarks" into different bills to force the Navy and Coast Guard to buy boats they didn't ask for — $17.65 million in all. None of the boats was used as Congress intended.

The congressional trio say they were helping Guardian Marine because it had a great product. But each has also received generous campaign donations from the company's three executives, its sole employees: $14,277 to Baird, $15,000 to Murray, and $16,750 to Dicks.

Earmarks are federal dollars that members of Congress dole out to favor seekers — often campaign donors. In the process, lawmakers advocate for the companies, helping them bypass the normal system of evaluation and competition.

This can result in earmarks that are wasteful or potentially harmful.

For example, Murray directed $6 million to a Redmond company for high-tech battle gear that the Army had rejected as flawed for its armored-vehicle Stryker Brigade.

Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., directed the Marines to buy $2 million of combat T-shirts from an Oregon company. But they couldn't be used in battle in Iraq due to a subsequent ban on polyester garments that could melt under fire and badly burn the troops.

Until recently, the earmark process was secretive. Congress did not have to publicly reveal the names of companies getting the contracts or those of the sponsoring lawmakers.

The Seattle Times investigated the 2007 defense bill, examining the relationships between who got money in the bill and who gave to lawmakers' campaign funds. Reporters were able to tie nearly half of the bill's 2,700 earmarks to their sponsoring lawmakers.

The Times then built a database of tens of thousands of government records to perform an analysis. It provides an in-depth look at the extent to which these congressional favors and campaign giving go hand in glove.

The Times found:

People who benefit from earmarks generally give money to those who deliver them: Of the nearly 500 companies identified as getting 2007 defense earmarks, 78 percent had employees or political action committees who made campaign contributions to Congress in the past six years.

Though individual contributions are limited by law, people at companies that received defense earmarks gave lawmakers more than $47 million.

The 2,700 earmarks Congress put in the 2007 military spending bill cost $11.8 billion. The Pentagon didn't ask for the money in its budget and, because its budget is capped by law, cuts had to be made to find room for the favors.

Nearly all members of Congress dole out earmarks. Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, an earmark critic, calls the practice "circular fundraising" because of the perception that tax dollars given out as favors come back as campaign donations. "I think that most taxpayers would say that it doesn't pass the smell test," he said.

Winslow Wheeler, formerly a congressional aide who dealt with defense earmarks for years, said no one in Congress asks for campaign donations in exchange for earmarks because they don't have to; everyone understands the process.

"It's not talked about," but if favors are not followed with donations, Wheeler said, "it's noticed — you may get a little bit less help the next year."

Murray, Dicks and Baird say emphatically that their favors to defense contractors never come with strings attached. The distinction is critical because soliciting a campaign contribution in exchange for an earmark is a crime.

"People, if they want to support me, they support me," Dicks said. "If they don't want to support me, I still might do their earmark — if I thought it was a worthy project."

Earmarking has exploded in the past decade, quintupling from 1996 to 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service.

During "The Season," the first three months each year on Capitol Hill, thousands of favor seekers flood the offices of Congress, asking for earmarks. Appointments stack one on top of the other, tying up staffers for months, as lawmakers winnow through the myriad requests and decide what to buy.

Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful lobbyist convicted of influence peddling, called the process "the favor factory."

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, who sponsors some earmarks, says that lawmakers find it easier to raise money from people they know from committee work. "I think it's very hard [for the public] not to have the impression that in some way what you do on the committee is some way related to how much money you get."

Officially, the Pentagon opposes earmarks because they circumvent its own efforts to set spending priorities, thoroughly evaluate products and seek competitive bids.

Some military officials, however, eagerly support earmarks that expand their programs. Gerald Darsch, who heads food research at Natick Soldier Systems Center, backed Murray when she set aside money to develop longer-lasting tomatoes and rations, a move that substantially increased his budget.

A senior Army official who fulfills Congress' earmarks said he first learns of them when the defense bill passes. He spoke only if his name was not used.

Often, he said he can't figure them out from the cryptic descriptions in the bill.

"If there's a new mark out there for something we've never seen before, [we go] back to the subcommittee and say, 'Hey, you put an earmark on this line for this amount of dollars. What the hell is it?' Because some of this stuff — hell, I've been in the Army for 20 years, and I don't know what some of that stuff is."

Boat gets a lift

The story of how Guardian Marine landed millions of dollars in public funds begins in Edmonds in the late 1990s. Company founder Richard Martinson had developed a "fast patrol boat," a hybrid of a speedboat and a ship, 85 feet long and capable of up to 40 knots, like crossing a sports car with a recreational vehicle.

The plan was to sell the $4 million patrol boat to foreign governments, but Martinson, a former Coast Guard commander, said sales floundered.

Martinson's fortunes brightened not long after he made his first recorded contribution to a congressional campaign in June 1998. He gave $500 to the re-election fund of Dicks, whom he knew when they lived a few doors apart at UW's Terry Hall in the 1960s.

In fall 1999, Dicks and Baird added a line in the defense bill to have the Navy buy Guardian Marine's $4 million boat.

Dicks urged the Navy to assign the boat to the Navy SEALs or other high-speed missions. But the boat was never deployed on any combat missions. It is now in Carderock, Md., "being used to evaluate new and emergent maritime technology," a Navy spokesman said.

Guardian Marine gained another powerful advocate in 2001 in Sen. Murray, who had just become chair of an appropriations subcommittee.

Murray describes herself as a "huge unabashed supporter of the maritime building industry" and boasts that her earmarks have helped to create jobs. She said she remembers hearing the Coast Guard talk about a need for fast boats to chase down drug runners.

Martinson recalls Murray telling him, "Maybe they should look at your boat."

"Senator, it sounds real good to me," Martinson recounts saying. "But remember one thing: You're going to get pushback from these people. The Coast Guard doesn't like any outside entity telling them what they need."

Martinson's prediction came true. Murray "had to work hard to get the Coast Guard to take the boat," he said. "There was a group that was upset because they felt the vessel was shoved down their throat."

Murray added a $4.65 million earmark to the 2002 defense bill and left the Coast Guard no choice about which boat it would buy, specifying in the bill that it had to be "a currently-developed 85-foot fast patrol craft that is manufactured in the United States."

The Coast Guard's mission shifted after Sept. 11, primarily to homeland security.

Murray said she might not have pursued the earmark "if we had been able to look forward and know that Sept. 11 was going to happen."

But the bill actually passed three months after Sept. 11. Before the final vote, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attacked Murray's earmark.

"The Coast Guard did not request this vessel, does not need this vessel, nor does this vessel meet the Coast Guard's requirements," he said on the Senate floor. "The Coast Guard's resources are already stretched thin and this will only hamper its ability to meet its new challenges since Sept. 11."

The bill passed with all its pork intact.

After several evaluations, the Coast Guard concluded it couldn't use the Guardian boat. It didn't need it to chase drug smugglers because it uses helicopters to do that more easily and safely.

"It's a fine boat for what it is," said Lt. Cmdr. Bill Brewer, who led some of the testing. "It didn't fit well into what the Coast Guard operates."

The Coast Guard gave it to a sheriff's office that uses it to patrol San Francisco Bay.

At the time of McCain's attack, Murray, Dicks and Baird delivered a third earmark for Guardian Marine, having the Navy buy another boat.

The plan was to have the Navy use the Guardian Marine boat in tandem with another test boat called the Sealion. The lawmakers combined the two boats into an $8.4 million earmark; both would be built by Oregon Iron Works.

By joining forces with Oregon Iron Works, its subcontractor, Guardian Marine gained political muscle. From 2001 to 2002, executives of the two companies would give more than $22,000 in campaign funds to members of their local delegations, including $3,000 to Murray.

But even as the third Guardian Marine boat was being assembled, the Navy decided it didn't want it and transferred it to the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory.

UW researchers concluded it would take $750,000 to make it usable. The university tried to get the Navy to take it back. For years, the boat was docked outside the school.

To maintain the boat, staff ran it at full speed once a year. "We're sort of trapped in doing the routine things that need to be done," Russell McDuff, director of the School of Oceanography, said earlier this year.

The Navy recently assigned the boat to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.

Although none of the three Guardian Marine boats were used as Congress intended, Murray, Dicks and Baird inserted a $4.5 million earmark for a fourth boat in the 2004 defense bill. This time, they said the speedboat was needed to retrieve torpedoes at the Navy base in Keyport, Kitsap County.

The Navy did buy a fourth Guardian Marine speedboat but assigned it to a base in California for evaluation.

In the past four years, executives of Guardian Marine and Oregon Iron Works have given nearly $125,000 in contributions to Congress members.

Baird stands behind the earmarks. "We didn't just say, 'Oh, a company in our district wants an earmark — let's get it for them.' We looked at the mission, we looked at the history of the boat, and we looked at the alternatives out there," he said. "And I think that's pretty good work, frankly."

Murray remains a staunch defender of earmarks. She pointed to Insitu, a high-tech company in Klickitat County that makes aerial drones the Army uses for surveillance in Iraq. She said she helps local companies with good products that may be overlooked by the sprawling Pentagon and its faraway bureaucrats who might favor their "buddies" who they "were having drinks with ... on Friday night."

"People tend to talk about earmarks as something that is a bad thing," she said. "I see it as a way to make sure that the tax dollars that are spent are spent in a very wise way."

Battle gear in boxes

Some defense contractors rely almost completely on earmarks. Redmond's Microvision, a small, publicly traded high-tech company, has gotten $55 million in earmarks, most of it to develop the technology used in a helmet display that was flawed.

In 2001, Microvision, with only $10.8 million in revenues, got $8 million in earmarks with the help of several members of Congress, including Sen. Slade Gorton.

(Two years later, after losing his Senate seat, Gorton took a seat on Microvision's board. It gave him $32,000 in annual director's fees and options to buy 90,000 shares of stock, company filings show.)

Microvision's product was the "Nomad," a tiny computer display that attaches to the helmets of soldiers. It was supposed to allow Stryker commanders to stick their heads out of their vehicles and see computerized maps without having to duck back inside.

In June 2004, Murray announced that she had gotten a $5.5 million earmark for the company and its core product for the Army. A month earlier, five Microvision executives each gave Murray's campaign $1,000 on the same day.

One Stryker Brigade commander — Col. Robert Brown — wrote in a November 2004 memo, approved by higher-ups, that an improved Nomad would be a key asset in combat missions in Iraq.

But a December 2004 report by the Center for Army Lessons gave a different conclusion: It was distracting to wear and had a blind spot, among other flaws. As a result, soldiers weren't using it.

Retired Command Sgt. Major Thomas Adams — one of those who evaluated equipment used by the Stryker Brigade in Iraq in 2005 — called the Nomad "junk." Vehicle commanders face the greatest risk when they have to look out of Strykers as they roll through Iraqi cities. They cannot risk testing a new product on the battlefield, Adams said, especially one that can interfere with their vision.

As a result, most of the Nomads sent to Iraq remained in unopened boxes at a warehouse in Mosul.

In August 2005, the Nomad was put to a competitive trial, battling head-to-head with five competing miniature monitors at a Yakima event dubbed "The Shootout."

Microvision lost the competition to Rockwell Collins. The biggest problem for Microvision was that Stryker maps distinguish friendly troops with colored icons. But the Nomad came only in a monochromatic red, so soldiers had difficulty telling good guys from bad.

Even so, Murray got the Senate four months later to approve a $6 million earmark that directed the Stryker Brigades to obtain 1,599 Nomads.

Microvision then announced it would shut down the Nomad program.

But with the $6 million, Microvision negotiated a deal to create 10 color prototypes of the see-through display.

This year, the troops found a simple and cheap solution for commanders needing to see computerized maps while standing and looking out of the hatch: They moved the computer to the top of the vehicle.

"It works just fine," said Col. Stephen Townsend, whose brigade just returned from Iraq.

Since late 2005, the company has overhauled its management. Its new chief executive officer, Alexander Tokman, said he wants to wean the company from earmarks and develop a real product for consumers.

"You can't bank your future on appropriations every year," Tokman said.

T-shirts that melt

In June 2005, Rep. Wu of Oregon arrived in Iraq and handed out free T-shirts to Marines. He was promoting the wares of InSport, a Portland-area company that makes fast-drying polyester shirts.

Earlier that year, Wu and other Northwest lawmakers got a $2 million earmark in the defense bill to sell T-shirts to the Marines. Wu said the shirts would be far more comfortable than the cotton ones the Marines wore under body armor.

But there was a big problem with these T-shirts, a problem encountered in the deserts of Iraq and in 1982 during the Falklands invasion.

Polyester clothing melts in intense heat, adhering to the skin. "This essentially creates a second skin and can lead to horrific, disfiguring burns," said Capt. Lynn E. Welling, the 1st Marine Logistics Group head surgeon, who conducted research in Iraq in early 2006.

Months after Wu's visit, a Marine wearing a polyester T-shirt was riding in an armored vehicle in Iraq when a bomb hidden on the road exploded. Even though the Marine wore a protective vest, the shirt melted in the explosion, contributing to severe burns over 70 percent of his body. Doctors had to extract the shirt's remains from the Marine's torso.

In April 2006, the Marines banned polyester T-shirts for use in combat or anywhere outside the protected "Green Zone" bases.

But in July, because of Wu's earmark, the Marines announced the purchase of 87,000 of the banned polyester T-shirts, along with 11,000 T-shirts with fire-resistant sleeves. None was allowed in battle, the Marines said.

David Costello, a lobbyist for InSport, said that when InSport and Wu sought the earmark, the company thought the troops' body armor would prevent the shirts from melting. Once the Marines banned these kinds of shirts, they were instead used for training.

Wu's spokeswoman said the Marines were happy to have funds for the shirts, citing a thank-you letter from the Secretary of the Navy that came a month before the ban.

Even after the ban, Wu inserted another $1 million earmark in the next defense bill to make the Marines buy the InSport shirts again, noting that the company was working to develop a heat-resistant shirt for combat use.

The Marines instead used that money to buy flame-resistant fleece garments from InSport.

Executives of InSport and its owner, Vital Apparel, donated $6,100 to Wu's campaign in a single day at the end of the earmark "season."

The day after the bill passed on Sept. 29, 2006, one executive gave another $750 to Wu. Two others followed with identical donations within three weeks.

But by then, the Marine Corps had done months of testing to find the best fire-resistant T-shirts. It selected two shirts, one made by Potomac Field Gear, the other by Danskin, according to the Marines.

InSport's T-shirt — even its new fire-resistant version — still can't be used in combat, said 1st Lt. Geraldine Carey of the Marine Corps Systems Command.

Changes needed

Congress members from both parties want to loosen the grip of money on politics. One solution, proposed earlier this year in a bill by senior Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., calls for public funding for congressional campaigns.

McDermott supports the idea but says reform won't come soon. "This is a country that worships at the altar of the free enterprise system, and so the Congress is reflective of that culture," he said.

Congress just recently began requiring lawmakers to reveal each earmark they've sponsored, name its beneficiary, and certify that neither they nor their spouse have any financial stake in them.

But such transparency only works if lawmakers feel "some degree of shame" for doling out favors to their backers, Rep. Flake said. "If you're not embarrassed by that, then transparency doesn't help a lot."

Meanwhile, Congress is approving a batch of new earmarks for next year.

Once again, Rep. Wu wants $1.5 million for InSport to sell T-shirts to Marines in Iraq — shirts designed to be worn under body armor but not approved for that use.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, recipient of $15,000 in contributions from Microvision executives since 2005, is seeking $1 million for more work on the company's 10 prototypes.

And Rep. Baird still wants to get patrol boats like Guardian Marine's into Coast Guard hands. During a congressional hearing earlier this year, Baird asked an admiral if they could "chat" about "other alternatives that are available on the marketplace" to the Coast Guard's slower, 87-foot patrol boats.

"Might we do that?" Baird asked.

"Happy to do that, sir," the admiral replied.

David Heath: dheath@seattletimes.com, 206-464-2136

Hal Bernton: hbernton@seattletimes.com, 503-292-1016

Interns Elizabeth Burlingame and Chanel Merritt contributed to this story.

$2 million | The earmark directed the Marines to buy T-shirts that aren't allowed in combat. The shirts had polyester and could melt in explosions. (JOANNA COLLAR)
$4.5 million | The earmark forced the Navy to buy a boat it didn't ask for and couldn't use. The company that built the boat, Guardian Marine International, got four earmarks totaling $17.65 million over several years. (THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Rep. Norm Dicks says favors to defense contractors don't come with strings attached. (KEVIN WOLF / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Microvision got earmarks to develop the "Nomad," a see-through computer monitor that was rejected. It was called "junk" by a soldier who helped evaluate it. (MICROVISION)
Sen. Patty Murray boasts that her earmarks have created jobs and helped local companies that have good products. (KEVIN WOLF / SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE TIMES)
The Navy decided it couldn't use this boat it was forced to buy. It was transferred to the University of Washington and later to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

How favors end up as law

After the president submits budgets prepared by departments and agencies, Congress determines the final budgets with 12 major spending bills.

At the start of each year, thousands of earmark seekers come to Capitol Hill to lobby for dollars.

The House and Senate appropriations committees allow each member of Congress to submit a wish list of earmarks — federal spending for projects the agencies did not request. Committee members have the most influence in getting earmarks.

The defense bill, like most spending bills, has spending limits. To make room for earmarks, Congress must cut items agencies have requested. Figuring out what those cuts are by reading the bill is quite difficult.

Earmarks approved by the committees are appended to the bills. Most earmarks are a few words in small type in a committee report.