A former CEO of a defense contractor has pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. Air Force in a kickback scheme.

Federal court documents show that Richard S. Ianeri received two kickbacks totaling about $200,000 from a company alleged to be Kuchera Industries Inc.

That former CEO’s company – Coherent Systems International Inc. – contracted with Kuchera on a defense project.

Kuchera’s Windber offices were raided by federal agents in February and an investigation into activities there is ongoing.

And, both Coherent and Kuchera have ties to the local congressman, Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown.

Coherent’s involvement in allegations over an Air Force project are part of a larger indictment aimed at Florida-based Schaller Engineering Inc. (SEI) and one of its top officers, Mark O’Hair. Coherent contracted with SEI, and then in turn contracted with Kuchera for a portion of its piece of the larger Air Force project, U.S. District Court documents show.

Here’s what people in our region and across Murtha’s congressional district should be worried about:

Are other local companies less likely to get government contracts or opportunities to work with larger defense companies because officials at Coherent and Kuchera have gotten themselves in hot water?

We’re hearing whispers that companies in the Washington, D.C., Beltway region are beginning to look closely at any dealings with companies in the Johnstown area.

That’s bad news for our region, obviously.

We hope we can offset those questions with the strong reputations of the companies that have not gotten themselves in trouble – and that would be the vast majority of local companies that have done defense work – including: JWF Industries/JWF Defense, Concurrent Technologies Corp., KDH Defense Systems, Windber Research Institute and others.

Perhaps Wednesday’s announcement that KDH had been awarded a $39.3 million contract to produce vests for the Army and Air Force would indicate that continues to happen.

We also hope that our region has developed a strong enough reputation with global defense companies to withstand this stretch of bad publicity.

Our region has solid relationships with major players such as Northop Grumman, DRS Laurel Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Kongsberg Defense Corp. – all of which have growing presences in the Johnstown market.

All of these companies – those locally based and those headquartered elsewhere – have contributed commerce and jobs to the local economy.

Several large defense projects with potential local impact are still in the works, including the huge JLTV project that would develop and produce the next line of military vehicle.

One of the three finalists for the JLTV project is a group headed by Lockheed that also includes JWF Defense and CTC. If this group is awarded the contract, thousands of jobs would be created in our region.

So, we have much at stake in how this all turns out.

An interesting parallel development has been attention aimed at the way lawmakers distribute a portion of the federal money at their disposal.

The practice of federal funding of projects through congressional “earmarks” has come under greater scrutiny in recent years. During the 2009 presidential campaign, there was a push to eliminate “earmarks” from the federal budgeting process.

But, as things now stand, earmarks are legal and a key tool for funding projects – including in areas unrelated to defense and many efforts with no connection whatsoever to Murtha.

Matthew Mazonkey, a Murtha spokesman, said in a recent Associated Press report: “This (Ianeri) case isn’t about earmarks. It’s about individuals within the defense industry and the Defense Department accused of defrauding the government.”

Of the Coherent probe, Mazonkey said: “If they broke the law, then they should be held accountable for their actions.”

We agree.

The focus should be on those accused of illegal activities.

Companies that accept taxpayer-funded contracts and then receive kickbacks have not just defrauded the government or defense, they have defrauded the people of the United States.

Penalties for such actions should be severe.

To date, Murtha has not been implicated in wrongdoing. We hope that’s how things stay.

In the meantime, we hope local companies that have been playing by the rules – and that is far and away the majority of companies here – are not hurt by the inappropriate actions of a few.

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