"The timing of his earmark is an issue," said Seligman Steiner.
Scott Hofelich, a spokesman for Specter, confirmed the October UPMC fundraiser took place, adding that "individuals who attended or contributed to the event, did so as individuals not representing any private or nonprofit company."
There was "absolutely" no agreement or understanding between Specter and UPMC that the group's giving would result in earmarks, Hofelich said. Any suggestion of such an arrangement, said Hofelich, is "insulting and borderline slanderous." There is no evidence showing a recognized quid pro quo between the lawmaker and the company.
George Board III, UPMC's head of federal lobbying at the time of the fundraiser, spoke with me last month. Board said he regularly fielded requests for contributions from political campaigns. "We'd get phone calls from campaign headquarters" asking for contributions, or to distribute information about fundraisers, Board told me in September. He would pass the information around to others, but "we indicated there was certainly no pressure to contribute," he said. Board officially retired from UPMC on Nov. 30, 2004.
Federal law bars political activity sponsored or encouraged by a non-profit like UPMC, although its employees are free to contribute and volunteer time to political campaigns. Although the October fundraiser hosted only Specter donors who were UPMC doctors and executives, Board denied the organization itself ever engaged in prohibited activity. UMPC "never held fundraisers for candidates. . . we were quite uncomfortable doing that," he told me.
In the fiscal 2005 Labor/Health/Education appropriations bill, UPMC and its subsidiaries received roughly $4 million, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense. Specter chairs the Senate committee overseeing the bill. On Nov. 20, 2004 -- less than three weeks after the election -- the bill emerged from Congress, larded with UPMC's earmarks.
"Obviously, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center knows who butters their bread," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan spending watchdog. Stanley Brand, a congressional ethics expert and lawyer, cautioned that he saw no evidence of illegality in the UMPC bundle. "It's become the way to have big influence with lawmakers in this post-reform age."
Of course, a look at UPMC's balance sheet shows that those $4 million in earmarks aren't exactly the difference between success and failure. With revenues topping $5 billion annually, the not-for-profit has declared "excess revenue" -- what a regular business might call 'profit' -- of roughly $300 million a year for 2005 and 2006. Its CEO, Jeffrey Romoff, earns $2.4 million a year in salary and benefits.