U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak told a group of senior citizens in Northeast Philly yesterday that his Republican rival in the race for the U.S. Senate, former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, wants to gamble with privatization of Social Security.

Toomey in turn seized upon confusion in Sestak's congressional office about a federal spending "earmark" for a wind-energy turbine project made in the name of a nonprofit organization but linked to a for-profit company.

Sestak, speaking at the Klein Jewish Community Center, pointed to Toomey's support for a plan to allow people to invest some Social Security taxes in "personal retirement accounts" that they control instead of the government.

Sestak said the plan would have caused people to lose significant chunks of their Social Security in the current downturn.

"I don't want to gamble that type of security," Sestak said.

Toomey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said her boss told reporters last week that he had never favored "privatization" of Social Security because he thinks that is a "misleading and pejorative" term for reform.

"Social Security would still be a government program," she said. "The voluntary accounts would be highly regulated by the government. It's a reform he proposed."

Toomey's camp touted a story first reported yesterday in The Morning Call of Allentown, which noted that Sestak submitted a $350,000 request for federal funds this year for the development of a wind turbine engine prototype proposed by the Thomas Paine Foundation, in Media.

That nonprofit is controlled by Drew Devitt, who also runs the for-profit New Way Energy LLC, which is pursuing the same goal.

The U.S. House in March instituted a rule that earmarks can be made for nonprofit groups but not for for-profit companies.

"Nowhere in the paperwork that he submitted did he ever mention that he was associated with a for-profit," Sestak said yesterday about Devitt's earmark request. "If now he's saying something else, then he should be held accountable for misrepresenting what he did."

Asked what that accountability should be, Sestak said: "Don't know. I guess we'll find out."

Devitt's nonprofit promotes the work of Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War writer who penned "Common Sense" in Philadelphia, rallying colonists to break away from British control.

Devitt yesterday confirmed that he did not list New Way Energy in the request but intended to have the nonprofit and for-profit "cooperate" on the project.

Devitt said the nonprofit has a legitimate educational role in the funding request, that he was not embarrassed by the confusion and still hopes to get the money.

Sestak said the $350,000 is not budgeted and he would block the money from moving forward.

Toomey's campaign said it was astounded that Sestak's office put forward the earmark request after merely confirming that the Thomas Paine Foundation was a registered nonprofit. The group reported it had $137 in assets in 2004, the last time it filed a tax form with the IRS.s

"Either someone is not telling the truth or there is gross incompetence at Congressman Sestak's office," Soloveichik said. "Which one is it?"