WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo's campaign accused his Republican primary challenger Wednesday of "cronyism" for taking a job after leaving Congress with a Colorado company to which he had funneled federal money. Former congressman Todd Tiahrt, though, defended the funding he secured, saying it was used to develop an airborne laser defense system that would have been built at the now-shuttered Boeing defense plant in Wichita.
The dustup comes in a bruising GOP fight for the congressional seat in south-central Kansas in which Tiahrt has challenged Pompeo to reclaim the House seat he gave up in 2010 for an unsuccessful primary run for the U.S. Senate against Jerry Moran.
One key difference between the two conservative Republicans is their philosophies about the appropriateness of bringing federal money to their home districts — even to create local jobs.
Pompeo, who was swept into the House with the tea party class in 2010, has argued that the local economy is better served by a smaller government that leaves more money in businesses' pockets. He contends the now-banned earmarks are corrupting and wasteful. Earmarks are a device used in Congress to attach special provisions to bills at the behest of specific members for interest in their districts.
But Tiahrt has touted in his campaign earmarks that he brought home to Kansas during his time in Congress as evidence of his work to help a local economy heavily dependent on aviation manufacturing and government contracts. Tiahrt has said he entered the race out of concern about the loss of aircraft companies and job layoffs in Wichita while Pompeo has been in office. He contends earmarks do not increase spending, but re-allocate dollars already in the budget.
It is against that backdrop that the issue of Tiahrt's employment with Colorado Springs-based Neumann Systems Group, Inc., has surfaced.
After leaving office, Tiahrt said he worked as the company's chief executive officer from January 2013 until this past March, taking over for its then-ailing executive David Neumann. Tiahrt made $285,688 in salary there last year, and its chief executive has contributed to Tiahrt's campaigns, disclosure forms show.
"He is a hero in my eyes for what he did to help me out from a health perspective," Neumann said, adding that he reached out to Tiahrt for help when he was too sick to run the company. While Tiahrt had helped the company years earlier secure additional government funding for advance research work on the project, that had nothing to do with the job offer, Neumann said. The airborne laser program was eventually cancelled because of budget cuts.
Tiahrt now runs his own Wichita consulting company. His disclosure form shows he has also earned fees from other aviation firms, including a $120,000 fee he received last year from Textron, the parent company of Wichita-based Cessna Aircraft. When in Congress, Tiahrt said he also funneled earmarks to Cessna for a new service center in Wichita that created 600 jobs.
Pompeo's campaign manager, Jim Richardson, called earmarks a "cycle of corruption" in a statement criticizing Tiahrt, saying the "you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours way of thinking" was very common before the earmark ban. "Mr. Tiahrt wants to eliminate that ban and bring back his personal gravy train," Richardson said.
Tiahrt pointed out that when Pompeo was in private business, his companies also received taxpayer money. Pompeo was chief executive of Thayer Aerospace when that company got a forgivable business development loan from the state and he was an investor and board member for a wind-turbine company that benefited from public money.
"All companies avail themselves of the programs put forward by state or municipal governments — it's how states compete with each other, and further, when they do this, it tilts the economy so that you can't compete unless you participate," Pompeo's spokesman J.P. Freire said in an email.
Tiahrt has defended the federal money he brought to local companies and public projects in Kansas, and disputed claims by the Pompeo campaign that he also requested earmarks for foreign and out-of-state companies. Instead of earmarks, Congress now has special-interest legislation pushed by lobbying groups — such as the proposed ban on labeling genetically modified foods — that is being backed by Pompeo, he said.
"I helped create and save and keep jobs here in Kansas through their efforts to contract with the federal government," Tiahrt said. "I supported the jobs, he supports the lobbyists."