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Cleland Leaves Disability Group

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) has withdrawn from the board of directors of a charity with close ties to Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) in response to a Roll Call investigation of the group’s limited achievements and close ties to a broad network of people and companies Murtha has aided.

The staff of the organization, the Pennsylvania Association for Individuals with Disabilities, displays a fierce commitment to the cause of helping people with disabilities find employment. But the life cycle of PAID seems to match many of the other Johnstown, Pa.-area entities that have received Murtha’s assistance: Launched with his backing, the organization gathers government contracts that Murtha earmarks but works primarily with other companies Murtha has funded. And it can point to few successes that are unrelated to the Congressman. Since its inception, Murtha has kept PAID on life support.

Even the organization’s highest-profile gift from Murtha — the announcement in August that Cleland would join the board of directors — turned sour after Roll Call contacted Cleland about his role and the group’s history.

Through a spokesman, Murtha declined to comment for this story.

In an Aug. 2 press release, PAID announced that Cleland would join the board of the organization, which was described as “a non-profit organization representing 60 million persons with disabilities, 64,000 of which are veterans, helping them with job assistance and training.”

Cleland has had a long friendship with Murtha and served as chairman of Veterans for Murtha during the 2006 elections when Republicans attacked Murtha for opposing the Iraq War.

Cleland said in an interview that he also has worked “informally” with Murtha over the past two years to develop a $5 million Defense Department wound-care initiative to test innovative techniques for helping veterans heal. In July, Cleland became a lobbyist for Tissue Regeneration Technologies, a Georgia-based company that is marketing new wound-care technology to the Defense Department.

PAID’s August press release quoted Cleland as saying, “I am truly honored to be joining a first-class organization whose sole mission is to fight for people who deserve the same opportunities as every able-bodied American does.”

But on Monday, Cleland told Roll Call, “I am no longer considering being a member of the board … I really don’t know much about the organization and really don’t have time to get involved.”

In an interview in August, PAID founder and President Carmen Scialabba, a former Murtha staffer and now a lobbyist with KSA Consulting, said, “what we intend to do is spread this thing not only nationwide, but worldwide.”

But several major statewide disability organizations in Pennsylvania contacted by Roll Call had never heard of or worked with PAID. The state’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which pays organizations to help prepare people with disabilities for the work force, says it has never hired PAID despite the fact that the organization rents office space in a rehabilitation center run by the OVR in Johnstown. A statewide network of employers seeking to hire people with disabilities contacted PAID some years ago, but PAID did not join with the network, its director, Stacy Liddick, said in an interview.

Despite claiming to represent millions of people, PAID’s own Web site has a tracking system that indicates it averages fewer than 10 hits a day. In August, the organization had 14 jobs listed on the site, all of them at two organizations: MountainTop Technologies, a local company that has received millions of dollars in earmarks from Murtha over the past decade; and Greater Alleghenies Blood Services, a local Red Cross center that takes blood donations at the John P. Murtha Donor Pavilion, named in honor of Murtha’s efforts to secure earmarks for the facility.

MountainTop CEO David Fyock also serves on the board of directors of PAID, and in 2002 he announced in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee that PAID was changing its name to People Assisting Individuals with Disabilities to reflect its “broader scope of activities.” But the name change never happened.

Murtha had announced the creation of PAID in 2001, saying that Aeptec Microsystems Inc., a company he helped bring to the region, would be opening a new headquarters and hiring two clients of the new organization. As documented in a previous Roll Call story, the headquarters never opened.

In an e-mail, PAID Executive Director Kimberly Roberts noted that the group is not a statewide organization and has a more limited reach. “PAID’s service region is only nine counties,” Roberts said. “Within those nine counties, though, our outreach is broad and we do our best to partner with as many organizations as we can.”

Roberts said the group has no ties to Murtha and that since she joined the staff in 2004, “Mr. Murtha has had no personal involvement with me, Carmen or any of the staff.”

Working with a mostly volunteer or temporary work force, PAID has received about $1 million in government grants to help people with disabilities get jobs, mostly through earmarks provided by Murtha.

According to a Labor Department spokesman, Murtha secured a $500,000 earmark grant for PAID in 2003 and a second earmark of $150,000 in 2004. But the department restricted PAID’s access to its grant funds in 2003 “because of high staff turnover and a determination that the organization did not have anyone qualified to make decisions or sign off on invoices,” the spokesman said.

The group’s access to federal money was restricted again in September 2005 “pending the replacement of a recently dismissed operations director. Restricted access was never lifted, as the organization did not make such a request and there were only three months left on the grant, which closed on 12/30/05,” according to Labor Department records.

PAID documents show it received a $300,000 state grant in 2006, but the organization’s only other fundraising activity appears to be an annual golf tournament in Silver Spring, Md., where Scialabba lives.

Scialabba, who spent 27 years on Murtha’s staff, has represented several clients while at KSA Consulting that have received earmarks from Murtha, including Aeptec and MountainTop. Other board members include:

• Tom Caulfield of the Johnstown office of the Veterans Leadership Program, which is housed in the same building as PAID and received a $500,000 earmark from Murtha in the Labor and Health and Human Services appropriations bill passed by the House in July;

• Bill Kuchera of Kuchera Defense Systems, a Johnstown-based contractor that has received millions in Murtha earmarks and claims to have hired dozens of people with disabilities from PAID;

• Daniel DeVos, president of Concurrent Technologies Corp., a nonprofit technology incubation center that Murtha helped establish in the late 1980s and that now has annual revenues of more than $230 million, more than 1,500 employees and buildings scattered around the 12th Congressional district — including the John P. Murtha Technology Center; and

• Ken Stalder and David Clifford, both lobbyists with Scialabba at KSA.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) also is an honorary board member and he credited Murtha with introducing him to the group.

Kennedy also is the only recipient of campaign contributions from what KSA calls its “leadership PAC.” On May 21, 2004, the KSA PAC — called the Working for Opportunity and Leadership Fund, or WOLF PAC — made two $2,000 contributions to Kennedy’s Congressional campaign and a $5,000 contribution to his PAC, the Rhode Island Political Action Committee. There is no record that the PAC has ever made any other political contributions.

PAID staffers said there should be little surprise that so many people affiliated with PAID also are affiliated with Murtha because the Congressman has been the primary source of economic development in the region for years. “Most of our jobs are defense industry jobs,” employment counselor Ann Michaels said. “That’s the growth area here,” she said, and Murtha’s earmarks are a major contributor to that growth.

Caulfield said Johnstown is small enough that many community leaders are on the boards of several groups, and most of them are likely to have connections with Murtha, who has represented the district since 1974.

Scialabba said he will turn anywhere he can for support to advance the cause of helping people with disabilities land full-time jobs. “I’m looking for someone to say ‘OK, let’s back these people,’” Scialabba said. “I just want to see this thing spread out.”

Since its creation, PAID claims to have helped 237 people with disabilities obtain permanent jobs, which other disability groups in the state say is an admirable achievement. But the organization has never been mentioned in a local newspaper and it does not appear to have ever been awarded any of the myriad citations given by agencies that employ people with disabilities. The only article written about the group appeared in an October 2006 issue of Exceptional Parent magazine, a Johnstown-based publication for families of people with disabilities. The article was written by Brenda Szelong, with no mention of the fact that she is on the PAID board of directors.

Shortly after Cleland announced he would be joining the board, a call to the PAID office in Johnstown to inquire about the group’s finances was returned by Michael Duga, Cleland’s then-chief of staff in Atlanta. Duga flew to Johnstown to meet a reporter and oversee interviews with Scialabba and other PAID staff members.

Though he does not have a disability, Duga said he had injured his knee and spent the day using a borrowed wheelchair and crutches.

Duga made broad claims about Cleland’s plans to lead the organization into national prominence, a commitment that Cleland apparently had no knowledge of.

A few days later, Duga was arrested for allegedly breaking into a Coast Guard facility in Massachusetts after reportedly posing as a campaign worker for a John Edwards fundraiser. Duga said, “I look forward to being fully exonerated, in both a court of law and public opinion.” Cleland has since severed ties with Duga.

Cleland — who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War — said Monday that he had agreed to participate in the golf tournament and serve on PAID’s board of directors because he strongly supports the idea of helping people with disabilities get employment and because Murtha seemed to support the group. But he stepped down after being contacted by Roll Call with questions about the group.

He said he remains a strong ally of Murtha’s — “I love Jack Murtha; he is my brother and my friend” — but his only commitment for now will be working with the wound-care company, Tissue Regeneration Technologies, and making speaking engagements.

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