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.