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Originally published September 30, 2010 at 4:30 PM | Page modified October 4, 2010 at 12:20 PM

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Report: Murray's former Senate staffers land earmarks

More than a dozen of Sen. Patty Murray's ex-staffers have become lobbyists, and their connections appear to be paying off: Nearly $20 million of the Democrat's defense earmark requests would benefit the clients of her former employees, The Seattle Times reported Thursday.

The Associated Press

SEATTLE —

More than a dozen of Sen. Patty Murray's ex-staffers have become lobbyists, and their connections appear to be paying off: Nearly $20 million of the Democrat's defense earmark requests would benefit the clients of her former employees, The Seattle Times reported Thursday.

There is nothing illegal, unusual, or inherently unethical about a lawmaker's former staffers becoming Capitol Hill lobbyists. Senate ethics rules require a one-year "cooling off" period that bars senior staffers from immediately lobbying their former bosses.

But the issue of federal spending and political favoritism has become heated on the campaign trail, where Murray faces a competitive challenge for a fourth term from Republican former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi. Rossi and Republicans have cast Murray's spending record, support for government bailouts and ability to deliver earmarks as part of a financially irresponsible Washington, D.C., establishment.

Murray and Democrats have criticized Rossi's business deals with two statehouse lobbyists more than a decade ago when he was a state senator, and portrayed him as doing the bidding of Wall Street figures who have donated to his Senate campaign.

The Times' examination showed that at least 17 former Murray staff members have moved into the lobbying sector, capitalizing on insider knowledge and connections to win federal money for their clients.

Murray has submitted earmark requests worth about $57 million for the 2011 defense spending bill, the Times reported. Earmarks are federal grants awarded at the request of individual lawmakers, with no competitive bidding.

Of that total - a fraction of the overall earmarks Murray has sponsored - at least nine projects worth $19.5 million would benefit clients of her former aides.

Murray has defended the practice of earmarked spending as a way for senators to ensure spending benefits home-state interests, rather than leaving such decisions up to executive branch administrators.

Murray's office said earmarks highlighted in the Times story were supported by the military and would create jobs in Washington. Murray spokesman Matt McAlvanah also said Murray supports increased transparency for earmark requests "so that Washington state residents know what she has requested and why."

The Times said former aides whose clients got Murray-sponsored earmark requests in the new defense bill include:

- Rick Desimone, Murray's former chief of staff, who left in 2007 to become executive vice president of McBee Strategic Consulting.

- Shay Hancock, Murray's former lead defense staffer. Hancock twice moved from Murray's office to the private sector, most recently leaving in 2006 for Denny Miller Associates.

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- Dale Learn, a lawyer who manages the D.C. office of the Tacoma law firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell.

- Chad See, a former Murray aide now lobbying with K&L Gates, who helped two Eastern Washington clients get defense-bill earmarks from Murray worth $4.5 million.

- Christy Gullion, Murray's former state director, now the chief federal lobbyist for the University of Washington, which won a $1.5 million Murray earmark for research on restoration of eyesight for wounded soldiers. Gullion's husband, Jeff Bjornstad, is Murray's chief of staff in the Senate, on leave managing her re-election campaign.

In interviews with the Times, Hancock and Learn said they try to bring to Murray only well-vetted earmark requests that are desired by the military and reflect Murray's interest in maritime, technology and veterans issues.

Both disputed the idea that Murray showers her former staffers with favors.

"There's not anything really clubby about Senator Murray," Hancock said. "She's been very, very good to me and my career. ... I try to take only the cream of the crop kinds of things to her, that she'd be interested in and her staff would be interested in."

Murray's clout as an appropriator helps explain why lobbyists and their firms, including those that employ her former staffers, are among her biggest campaign contributors.

Former Murray staffers-turned-lobbyists and clients who got earmarks in the 2011 defense bill have given $80,000 since 2006 to the senator's campaign and her political-action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But one of Hancock's clients, Next IT Corp. of Spokane, shows that earmarks can be bipartisan. Next IT got a $1.5 million earmark from Murray, even though records show its executives donate primarily to Republican candidates. Republican Senate challenger Rossi reported owning more than $100,000 in the company's stock in a financial filing.

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