As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., is in a perfect position to deliver roads, bridges, and community-development projects to the cities and towns in his congressional district.
The cities and counties in Rep. Jerry Lewis' district have received a nice share of earmarks over the years.
Yet more than a half-dozen communities and counties, and a private college in the district, have felt the need to spend more than $4 million over the past seven years on a lobbying firm with close personal and professional ties to Lewis to help bring federal funds back home.
The municipalities have been highly successful in their efforts. But their decision to hire Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White has left some observers scratching their heads about why communities represented by a powerful senior appropriator needed a lobbyist to do their bidding. "I asked the same question, and I don't have an answer," a former House Appropriations Committee aide said in an interview. "My experience is that the chairman looks out for his district. Why would a municipality that had such an effective member feel the need to hire a lobbyist?"
More important, federal law enforcement officials reportedly are asking the same question. They have served subpoenas on at least six towns and counties in Lewis's district that are represented by Copeland Lowery as part of an investigation into connections between Lewis and the lobbying firm, according to The San Bernardino County Sun.
Federal officials are said to be examining the earmarking practices of several House appropriators and lobbyists as a result of the conviction of former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., who admitted taking bribes in exchange for earmarks.
Shortly before the subpoenas were served, mayors of two of the towns defended their decisions to hire Copeland Lowery, while other mayors failed to return telephone calls.
The number of earmarks -- projects that benefit a specific area and are inserted into appropriations bills -- soared from 4,126 in 1994 to 15,268 in 2004, according to the Congressional Research Service [PDF]. Not surprisingly, the value of lobbyists who are appropriations specialists has soared, too.
Members of Congress who want to submit earmark requests to the Appropriations Committee must understand how to fill out the necessary forms, push the right buttons with Appropriations subcommittee staff, and meet strict deadlines. Appropriations lobbyists can help members navigate this arcane process.
"There's appropriations lobbying, and there's everything else," one lobbyist said.
Presumably, because Lewis is a longtime appropriator, his staff knows how to play the earmarks game. But Lewis also has close ties to Copeland Lowery. By now, some of those ties have been well publicized. Lowery is former Rep. William Lowery, R-Calif., a friend of Lewis's. Letitia White -- another lobbyist with the firm and someone who worked for Lewis for years -- has been dubbed "K Street's queen of earmarks" by The New York Times.
Yet another lobbyist at the firm is Jeff Shockey, whom California municipal officials closely identify as both a lobbyist with several area clients and a Lewis staff member. Shockey worked for Lewis in the 1990s, left to join Lowery's firm, and then returned to the Appropriations Committee staff when Lewis became chairman in 2005. It has been widely reported that Shockey received a $600,000 severance package when he left Copeland Lowery. Shockey is now the Appropriations Committee's deputy staff director.
While he was at Copeland Lowery, Shockey's name appeared as a registered lobbyist for virtually all of the cities and counties in Lewis's district that are represented by the firm.
To determine Copeland Lowery's success, National Journal cross-referenced lobbying registration records with an earmark database maintained by Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group. The group compiles that data by scouring appropriations legislation to determine which projects have been added by appropriators and whether they were added in the House, in the Senate, or in conference, according to David Williams, the group's vice president for policy.
Whether it was Shockey's prowess as a lobbyist or Lewis's skill as an inside player, the cities and counties in Lewis's district have received a nice share of earmarks over the years. For instance, the town of Highland, which paid Copeland Lowery $40,000 in 2005, got $1.75 million in the Interior appropriations conference report for an environmental learning center, located near the Jerry Lewis Community Center.
Money for the learning center, funded through the Environmental Protection Agency, was not in the House or Senate appropriations measures, but was added during the conference committee. Critics of earmarks say that is when appropriators have the best opportunities to add pork-barrel projects. Typically, in conference, only a member of the Appropriations Committee or a congressional leader is in a position to slip an earmark into a bill. And because the project is in a conference report, it's virtually impossible for another member to remove the earmark without voting down the entire bill.
The city of Redlands has used Copeland Lowery since 2000, paying the firm $40,000 that year and $20,000 more in 2005. Last year, the city received a $500,000 earmark for a crime-mapping program, one of several projects it has won over the past several years.
Copeland Lowery has also been registered as the lobbyist for Yucca Valley since 2003. According to records, city officials paid the lobbyists less than $10,000 a year until 2005, when the payment jumped to $40,000. That year, the town received a $250,000 earmark in the Transportation appropriations conference report for construction of a community center. In earlier years, the town received varying amounts for transportation, economic development, and solar energy projects.
Yucca Valley's success in gaining federal funds validates the decision to hire Copeland Lowery, Mayor Paul Cook said on June 5, a few hours before city officials were served with a subpoena for their records. "I think it was a good idea," he said. "I think it really made a big difference." Hiring outside lobbyists gave the town a "fighting chance," Cook said. "They can bring our message to our elected officials better than we can. I want to be able to get the Washington angle on things."
Cook told National Journal that town officials are "kind of alarmed about the investigation." He admitted he was not always a fan of hiring a lobbyist. According to the minutes of a January 16, 2003, town council meeting, Cook said he was concerned about hiring a lobbyist simply to play pork-barrel politics.
Loma Linda Mayor Floyd Peterson also defended the decision to hire Copeland Lowery, saying that several years ago, the town had a major flood-control problem and "needed a lot of money." Since then, the town has sought federal funds for other projects. "One doesn't really know how Washington works," he said. Loma Linda's records have also been subpoenaed by federal law enforcement officials.
Lewis did not respond to requests for comment. However, in a June 2 statement, Lewis said he had not been contacted by the Justice Department regarding any investigation. "I encourage a thorough review of any project I have helped secure for my constituents," he said, adding that he has always been focused on the needs of his district. "I am sure they all meet the highest standards of public benefit. Throughout my career, I have also made every effort to meet the highest ethical standards, and I am absolutely certain that any review of my work will confirm this." Employees of Copeland Lowery did not return a phone calls requesting comment.
While the California municipalities decided to hire a lobbyist even though their congressman chaired the Appropriations Committee, one Florida town took the opposite view when Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., headed the panel from 1999 to 2005. The town of Largo never considered hiring an outside lobbyist, Mayor Patricia Gerard said. "Maybe it's different when you don't have a Bill Young sitting on the Appropriations Committee," she said.
In one well-known case in the Senate, then-Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., became downright indignant upon learning in 1989 that West Virginia University had hired a lobbyist. According to The Washington Post, Byrd said to school officials: Why do you think you need a lobbyist? "I'm on the Appropriations Committee.... If I can't do it, nobody can."
As for Lewis, the former House Appropriations Committee aide said that the chairman also had a reputation for making sure that he took care of the needs of his district. "I always found him to have a very high sensitivity [about the needs] back home," the former aide said.