Lewis subject of 'earmarks' investigation, source says

By Jerry Kammer and Dean Calbreath

May 12, 2006

WASHINGTON – Rep. Jerry Lewis, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, angrily denied yesterday that he or his staff had engaged in any misconduct in dealing with lobbyists or in “earmarking” federal money.

Rep. Jerry Lewis
But a federal government source told The San Diego Union-Tribune that investigators were probing Lewis' dealings with lobbyist and former Republican Rep. Bill Lowery of San Diego. The source said the investigation was a spin-off from the corruption probe of now-imprisoned former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

“Investigators are clearly interested in what role the congressman (Lewis) may have played in steering earmarks to certain entities,” said the source, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.

The investigation is being handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, which has issued subpoenas, the source said. A second government source confirmed the investigation.

Neither Lewis, R-Redlands, nor his staff has been contacted by the Justice Department or been informed that they are targets of a federal investigation, the congressman said in a statement yesterday.

Lewis lashed out at Justice Department officials, journalists and – most bitingly – Cunningham.

“I am angered and frustrated by anonymous sources, either inside or out of the Justice Department, who would imply to journalists that an investigation has been launched when no suggestion has been made that an investigation is needed,” Lewis said.

In December, Copley News Service and The San Diego-Union Tribune detailed the close personal, professional and financial ties between Lewis and Lowery, as well as their staffs.

Lowery's firm has collected millions of dollars in lobbying fees from public institutions and businesses that received money through the House Appropriations Committee that Lewis chairs. Lowery, in turn, arranged hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Lewis' political causes.

In the Union-Tribune articles, Lewis denied any wrongdoing. But his denial yesterday was more forceful, with most of his fury directed at Cunningham, who admitted to taking more than $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for federal contracts.

“Mr. Cunningham . . . betrayed his oath of office, his constituents, and his fellow members of Congress,” Lewis said in his statement. “I have never been as angry toward anyone in my entire career.”

“Mr. Cunningham was never a close friend,” Lewis added. He described the disgraced ex-congressman as simply “a colleague I trusted to serve the interests of his country.”

However, Lewis and Cunningham sometimes campaigned together, including a joint fund-raiser at the San Diego headquarters of General Atomics in October 2004 with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine.

Lewis and Cunningham also worked in tandem on Pentagon funding requests that came before the Appropriations Committee, defense contractors and military analysts have told the Union-Tribune.

“Lewis and Duke worked together, exerting a lot of control. It was pretty frightening,” said a San Diego military contractor who dealt with both Lewis and Cunningham.

The contractor spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to jeopardize his professional relationships in Washington, D.C.

In the months after Cunningham pleaded guilty, Lewis resisted an independent investigation of Cunningham's activities on the Appropriations Committee. He said he did an informal review of Cunningham's earmarks over several years and was satisfied that they were all legitimate.

Lewis said in his written statement yesterday that he would “welcome a thorough review of these projects.”

His office did not respond to requests that it release the results of his informal review. Copley News Service requested a list of the earmarks, the companies that benefited from them and the amount of money involved.

A former director of the committee's Democratic staff called on Lewis to be more forthcoming about Cunningham's actions.

“I think he has an obligation to explain what happened here because his committee . . . was used for corrupt purposes,” said Scott Lilly, who left the committee in 2004.

According to government and defense industry sources, Lewis and Cunningham worked together to help Poway military contractor Brent Wilkes as he pursued contracts on Capitol Hill. Cunningham admitted taking bribes from Wilkes, who has been identified as co-conspirator No. 1 in Cunningham's plea agreement.

On April 15, 1999, three months after Lewis was named chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, he received $17,000 in campaign contributions from Wilkes and his associates. At the time, Wilkes was vying for a project to digitize military documents in the Panama Canal Zone, which the United States was about to return to Panama.

“If you can't go to people on Capitol Hill, it's very difficult to remain viable as a government contractor,” said one of Wilkes' associates who contributed money to Lewis at the time. “You have to talk to people. And to talk to people, you have to give money.”

But the Panama project hit a snag. The Pentagon did not want to give Wilkes as much money as he requested.

On July 6, 1999, Wilkes wrote to Cunningham saying “We need $10 m(illion) more immediately . . . This is very important and if you cannot resolve this others will be calling also.”

Wilkes' memo – contained in federal documents accompanying Cunningham's guilty plea – then named two people whose names were blacked out by the prosecutors.

According to military and defense industry sources, Lewis and Cunningham got the money for Wilkes, founder of ADCS Inc., by using their clout to threaten the funding of the Pentagon's F-22 fighter jet.

The jet had been criticized as an expensive boondoggle by budget hawks on Capitol Hill. But it had the support of many lawmakers – including Cunningham – until it reached Lewis' committee.

During a closed-door meeting in July 1999, the committee voted unanimously to clip $1.8 billion from proposed funding for the F-22. The move was led by Lewis and Cunningham, who said at a public meeting that month, “I would not want to fly the F-22.”

“Once Lewis and Cunningham stopped the F-22, they trained the Department of Defense to understand their power,” said the former San Diego defense contractor. “So they were able to tell people that if you want to do any document conversion project, you'd better buy from ADCS.”

A Pentagon official told the Los Angeles Times this week that the Pentagon shifted roughly $10 million to Wilkes' flagship company, ADCS Inc., after the F-22 was threatened.

“The Defense Department spends $1 billion a day, so the (ADCS) contract was like a rounding error,” the official said. “It just wasn't worth putting our big programs at risk.”

Funding for the F-22 was quickly restored. And the next year, when Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon tried to cut F-22 funding, Cunningham went to the floor of the House to call him a “socialist.”

“Our kids are going to die, and it's amendments like this that have stopped our military from surviving,” he said.

Lewis has maintained there is no connection between the F-22 funding cut and aid for Wilkes.

Since 1993, Lewis has received $88,252 in contributions from Wilkes and his associates. Only two other legislators received more: Cunningham and Republican Rep. John Doolittle from the Sacramento suburbs, both of whom have admitted steering millions of dollars in contracts to ADCS.

During the same period, ADCS received more than $90 million in federal contracts, most of it through earmarks from the Appropriations Committee.

“From the standpoint of the average American citizen, that smells,” said Ned Wigglesworth, executive director of TheRestofUs.org, a liberal political watchdog group in Sacramento. “It's good to see that federal investigators have broadened the investigation into Lewis. His relationship with Wilkes has many of the same hallmarks that Cunningham's relationship had.”

Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; jerry.kammer@copleydc.com

Copley News Service reporters Matt Krasnowski and Marcus Stern and staff writer Onell R. Soto contributed to this report.

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