WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- A watchdog group says earmarks Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum pegged for Pennsylvania while a senator contradict his claim he's not an insider.
In the 2006 Defense Department appropriations bill, for example, Santorum helped secure $124 million in federal financing for 54 earmarks, a tally by Taxpayers for Common Sense indicated. The New York Times said its review of campaign finance records indicated Santorum's Senate campaign committee and his leadership political action committee collected more than $200,000 in contributions from people associated with the benefiting companies or their lobbyists.
Santorum campaign senior adviser John Brabender told the Times contributions from earmark recipients would "not have been a factor" in the senator's decision to support their projects. Brabender said the contributions represented a small slice of the more than 100,000 people who contributed to Santorum's 2006 re-election campaign.
"We can't control when somebody made a contribution," Brabender said. "Clearly, there would never have been any type of indication from the Senate office or anybody else that a contribution would be warranted or helpful."
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, estimated Santorum helped secure more than $1 billion in earmarks while in the Senate from 1995 through 2006. However, lawmakers during Santorum's tenure did not have to disclose them as they must today, making it almost impossible to recreate a complete list, the Times said.
A super-PAC supporting front-runner Mitt Romney is spending several million dollars in Florida, with a Jan. 31 primary, on television ads attacking Santorum for pushing "wasteful pork." Rivals Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul, both of Texas, also have jumped on Santorum over earmarks.
Santorum has defended earmarks as a legitimate use of congressional power, but also allowed that the practice has gotten out of hand and should be suspended. Still, focusing on earmarks means bigger issues, such as entitlement reform, are out of the public eye, he said.
"We're focused on earmarks, and it's wrong," Santorum during a recent campaign stop in South Carolina. "We're ignoring the elephant in the room."
The South Carolina primary is Saturday.