Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Other Jerry Lewis

We are not talking about the comedian who is highly esteemed by the French, and by the inhabitants of no other nation on the planet.

It is instead the veteran Republican politician from the inland empire east of Los Angeles that is making news today.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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.

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