Lewis Surfaces in Probe of Cunningham

Federal prosecutors have begun an investigation into Rep. Jerry Lewis, the Californian who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, government officials and others said, signaling the spread of a San Diego corruption probe.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles has issued subpoenas in an investigation into the relationship between Lewis (R-Redlands) and a Washington lobbyist linked to disgraced former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), three people familiar with the investigation said.

The investigation is part of an expanding federal probe stemming from Cunningham’s conviction for accepting $2.4 million in bribes and favors from defense contractors, according to the three sources.

It is not clear where the investigation is headed or what evidence the government has. But the probe suggests that investigators are looking past Cunningham to other legislators and, perhaps, the earmarking” system that members of Congress use to allocate funds.

Lewis said Wednesday that he was not aware of any investigation, had not been contacted by any investigator and did not know why he would be investigated.

For goodness sake, why would they be doing that?” Lewis asked.

The government is looking into the connection between Lewis and his longtime friend Bill Lowery, the sources said. Lowery, a lobbyist, is a former congressman from San Diego.

As chairman of the Appropriations panel, Lewis has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts for many of Lowery’s clients, one of the sources said.

Lewis said he knew Lowery well, having spent 12 years in Congress with him, but denied favoring earmarks for Lowery’s clients.

Absolutely not,” Lewis said. He said all the earmarks he authorized benefited “my constituents and my people.” He said he was particularly proud of helping fund programs such as the cancer treatment center at Loma Linda University, a client of Lowery’s. That would never have been accomplished without an earmark,” he said.

The Lewis investigation is in the early stages and has not been presented to a grand jury, the sources said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were either involved in the probe or were not authorized to speak about ongoing investigations.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the office of U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang, said that as a matter of policy he could not confirm or deny any investigation it might be conducting.

The probe focuses on what one source said was an unusually close relationship between Lewis and Lowery, who served on the House Appropriations Committee together from 1985 to 1993.

Shortly after leaving Congress, Lowery founded Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, a Washington lobbying firm whose clients include Brent R. Wilkes, a defense contractor who is the focus of a separate probe in San Diego.

Wilkes has been identified by his lawyer as the unindicted co-conspirator No. 1” in the Cunningham corruption case.

In that case, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes and favors from co-conspirator No. 1” and his business associate, Mitchell Wade, who pleaded guilty to bribing Cunningham. Cunningham and Wade are cooperating with federal investigators.

Wilkes and his companies have given Lewis at least $60,000 in campaign contributions over the years, making them among the lawmaker’s largest contributors.

At the same time, Wilkes has paid Lowery’s firm more than $160,000 in lobbying fees.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan research organization, Lewis has earmarked at least $70 million in federal funds for a mapping software company in Redlands. The company, Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., is one of Lowery’s largest clients and has paid more than $320,000 in lobbying fees, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.

Investigators are said to be particularly interested in the intermingling of Lewis’ and Lowery’s staffs and whether it led to favorable treatment for Lowery’s clients in securing government contracts.

Jeff Shockey, a key Lewis staffer, went to work for Lowery as a lobbyist in 1999 and then returned to Lewis’ staff last year. According to a source familiar with the investigation, Shockey received $600,000 in severance payments from Lowery’s firm before returning to Lewis to become the deputy staff director for the House Appropriations Committee – with an annual salary of $170,000.

He is now the gatekeeper for more than $850 billion,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, referring to the Appropriations Committee’s role in disbursing government funds.

Shockey could not be reached for comment.

John Scofield, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, said Shockey and the committee had had “no contact with any entity of any kind,” referring to investigators.

This is all based on anonymous sources and hearsay. It’s borderline slanderous,” Scofield said.

In 2003, another key Lewis aide, Letitia White, became a lobbyist for Lowery.

It’s the wicked revolving door,” said Naomi Seligman Steiner, investigator for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog backed by liberal groups that has questioned the relationship between Lewis and Lowery.

Lewis was among several members of Congress who came under scrutiny after the Cunningham corruption case erupted last summer. Cunningham, also a longtime Lewis friend, admitted to earmarking funds to Wilkes in return for cash and favors.

Cunningham challenged Lowery, the incumbent, in the 1992 Republican primary. But Lowery dropped out of the race after he was identified as one of the worst offenders of “Rubbergate,” in which several members of Congress were discovered to have written numerous bad checks on the House bank. Lowery acknowledged writing 300 bad checks.

Cunningham’s campaign slogan was: “A congressman we can be proud of.”

Lewis is one of the senior members of Congress, with 27 years on Capitol Hill. At one time, he was head of California’s GOP delegation, and became a “cardinal” – as the chairs of Appropriations subcommittees are known – serving most recently as chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee and managing the biggest spending bill in the federal budget.

Last year, Lewis became chairman of the full committee, historically one of the most powerful jobs in Washington.


Big Bear Lake Resort Association history isn't all rosy


Wednesday, May 10, 2006 11:57 AM PDT

Ssssh. The Big Bear Lake Resort Association's success story isn't completely free of freckles, but not too many people want to shout about it. Most RA members and ex-members are so afraid of speaking out against the RA they practically hang up the phone at the mere mention of voicing an opinion. When you pry a little deeper, they'll talk, but only if you don't know their names.

That sort of fear and secrecy is what has caused much of the controversy surrounding the RA. At board meetings, members are sometimes chastised for trying to speak up. Others spend years trying to get on the board because they are suspect of how the money is handled. Others just flat out filed a lawsuit.

In the late 1990s, a lawsuit charged that RA board president and president of Snow Summit Resort Dick Kun was hard-balling people into joining the RA to keep receiving discounted ski lift tickets from the resorts. There were charges the RA favored certain member businesses and prohibited members from subscribing to other referral services.

There were personal attacks, allegations of price fixing, and in the end the lawsuit was defeated, spare some free ski lift tickets and lawyer fees exchanged. Kun and the RA came out on top.

Day-to-day transactions remain a hot issue with some business owners still seven years after the lawsuit was settled. The reservation system seems to be the burning button for most.

“Entopia, I don't care for it,” says Jim Fulton, manager of North Shore Cabins, one of the few willing to give his name. Fulton says the referrals from the RA only seem to come during busy times when the cabins are already plenty booked. “We don't get anything during the off season. We don't get nothing from them.”

Part of the problem seems to be a lack of communication from the upper level management of the RA that focuses solely on marketing Big Bear. RA members who just deal with the bottom line are not seeing the benefits or even aware of an ad in the Los Angeles Times or Family Circle and how that helps their businesses in the big picture.

The RA's clients are not always privy to the science behind the marketing plan or have a gist of what tourism in Big Bear would be like without the public relations and marketing. They just have the headaches of a flawed reservation system that sometimes sends guests to their front desk before the lodge knows the room is booked.

Another accommodations manager who declined to be identified said her lodge is no longer a member of the RA because of billing problems. “Behind the business door, dealing with some of them is not easy,” she says, explaining stumbling blocks with credit card billings in the past.

“I felt what they claim as far as no favoritism is not true either,” she says. For a lodge not yet able to hook into the reservation system online, they are literally left out of the loop more than others.

Another business owner who also spoke on the basis of anonymity said the RA, while a good business model, is not a great one. “When you make it for profit, you end up competing with your own customers,” he says, adding that after paying the dues, he's also approached to pay to advertise in the RA visitors guide and help promote events that do not directly help his business profit.

“The RA should stick to promoting Big Bear as a destination,” he says. “Because they have their own reservation system it makes people suspect. They end up in competition with other places that have their own Web sites.”

As far as events, he is offended when asked to help other businesses profit without his monthly numbers taken into account, he says. “They are taking money for what should be a good thing and at the same time are stabbing their customers in the back.”

Contact reporter Arrissia Owen Turner at (909) 866-3456, ext. 142 or by e-mail at aoturner@bigbeargrizzly.net.