WASHINGTON -- An Illinois company has received millions of dollars worth of earmarks from the office of home-state Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) -- while retaining the wife of Durbin's chief of staff as a lobbyist on the account.
Amy Ford Souders, the wife of chief of staff Patrick Souders, registered in 2007 to lobby on behalf of EPIR Technologies, a defense contractor, according to Senate filings. Souders is a founding member of Cornerstone Government Affairs, a well-known, earmark-oriented lobby shop. Her firm no longer represents EPIR.
A spokesman for Durbin declined to comment on the earmark, other than to say that Souders did not lobby the office and that there is a strict firewall between Durbin's congressional business and family members who lobby. The "firewall" policy has been in the news before because Durbin's wife, Loretta Shaeffer Durbin, is a lobbyist for Government Affairs Specialists in Springfield, Ill., which works with Illinois clients.
Durbin's support of EPIR began before Souders won the lobbying contract, Durbin was not the first lawmaker to back it, and government support of EPIR continues today despite the virtual elimination of the earmark process in Congress. Illinois Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican, first wrote the Department of Defense on behalf of funding for EPIR in March 2006. EPIR is based in Biggert's district.
According to an undated earmark request form submitted to Durbin's office and reviewed by HuffPost, EPIR was represented in 2006 by Tom O'Donnell of the Continental Consulting Group. The form instructs lobbyists that it must be emailed before March 1, 2006. The firm asked for $3 million; Durbin requested as much from the Senate appropriations committee, which ultimately awarded $1.8 million for Fiscal Year 2007 and $1.6 million for FY 2008.
Souder's firm signed EPIR in May 2007, according to her lobbying disclosure paperwork filed with the Secretary of the Senate. For that coming fiscal year, the request for an earmark was not made by Souders but by Cornerstone Government Affairs lobbyist Mark Murray, according to the earmark submission form. However, Souders did work on the EPIR account, lobbying the House side in support of the company. The lobbying registration form that was first filed in 2007 and renewed in 2008 and 2009 lists Amy Souders, Mark Murray and Mark Mioduski as the lobbyists working on EPIR's earmark.
In FY 2009, Durbin requested $5.6 million for EPIR, all of which was awarded. FY 2010 brought a $7.2 million earmark.
Earmarking has now become too controversial for the Senate to undertake, but EPIR has nevertheless continued to receive government money at the discretion of the Department of Defense.
Souders says that she stayed well within the rules and ethical guidelines that govern lobbying when a spouse works in public service.
"I worked on the Cornerstone team for EPIR, when they were a client of our firm," she told HuffPost in an email. "I dealt mostly with the client's House Rep. I didn't lobby the Durbin office on this issue. As you may know, the Durbin office has a strict policy on relatives of staff members who are federally registered lobbyists and I follow those restrictions without question."
Durbin's office ethics policy covers everyone on staff, not just the relatives themselves. "To avoid any appearance of impropriety, the Office prohibits its employees from meeting, conversing, or corresponding with any registered lobbyist who is an immediate family member of the Senator or any Office employee regarding the immediate family member's 'lobbying contacts' or 'lobbying activities', as those terms are defined in the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995," according to a copy of the office policy manual dated 2007, and still in force. "The firm employing the immediate family member may lobby the office consistent with the rules of the Senate and all applicable statutes."
Durbin has been public about the EPIR earmarks themselves, pumping out press releases on each occasion, proud of having funded projects back home.
"Senator Durbin's continued support has been extremely helpful, and I expect to continue rewarding his support with innovation and achievement that exceeds expectations and contributes substantially both to the protection of our soldiers, our country, our economic growth and the health of our environment," Dr. Siva Sivananthan, chairman and CEO of EPIR, said in an a statement put out after one of the announcements.
Patrick and Amy Souders attended Marquette University together and both went on to work for Durbin. Amy Souders served on his successful 1996 Senate campaign and Pat Souders, who began as a Durbin intern, became projects director, in charge of funneling federal money back to Illinois. Amy Souders has contributed $2,500 to Durbin over the years, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post investigated members of Congress who've won funding for projects connected to family members.
The Post didn't report on Durbin or Souders, but a former Senate aide who's worked with Patrick Souders told HuffPost that the family phenomenon is fairly common, and that when relatives are involved, staffers and members of Congress aren't always able to see what the public perception of a situation might be. "I'm sure if Pat looked around the office and somebody else was in this situation, he'd say, 'Hmm, this doesn't look quite right,'" said the former aide, who spoke highly of the Durbin aide. "When family's involved, often times people with the best of intentions have blinders on."
According to records filed with the Senate, CGA earned $70,000 from EPIR in 2007. Between 2007 and 2010, CGA billed EPIR $520,000, the CGA filings state.
Durbin himself has faced the dilemma of how to influence public spending while avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest.
A 2005 article in the Daily Herald laid out his thinking:
Sen. Dick Durbin also consulted an ethics committee over his wife's career.
In 1997, when Loretta Durbin wanted to start a lobbying firm representing clients before local and state government, the Democratic senator asked about the propriety of being married to a lobbyist.
The committee replied that there was nothing improper about it.
Four years later, Durbin used his clout on the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve a $150,000 grant for the American Lung Association of Illinois, one of his wife's clients. The money was to improve a tobacco quit-line and run an outreach program for military veterans.
Again, Durbin had a question. This time, he supplied the answer himself.
"I did step back and I thought for a second: 'Now, Loretta represents the Illinois Lung Association. Would I have done this anyway?' And the answer was clearly yes," said Durbin, a longtime critic of tobacco whose father died of lung cancer.
"I just didn't think it was fair to say that these veterans wouldn't get a helping hand because the Illinois Lung Association worked with my wife on state issues."
EPIR's president didn't respond to a request for comment.