A lobbying firm under federal investigation received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a California county that it has never reported in disclosure reports filed with Congress.
In 2003, Copeland Lowery reported receiving less than $10,000, while county records show the firm received almost $140,000. In 2004, it received $168,624 and reported less than $70,000.
Between 2003 and 2005, San Bernardino County paid Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & Shockey some $264,000 more than the firm reported receiving in lobbying disclosure forms filed in the House and Senate, according to records subpoenaed by federal law enforcement agencies. County records show that the county paid the firm almost $140,000 in 2003 -- sending it regular, monthly checks -- yet the lobbyists reported receiving less than $10,000 from San Bernardino County when they filed their disclosure reports.
Between 2003 and 2005, the lobbying firm was under contract to the county and received monthly retainers ranging from $12,500 to $16,500 a month. A Copeland Lowery spokesman cautioned that not all of the unreported money could be attributed to lobbying, but conceded that the reports were inaccurate and that the firm planned to file amended documents in the coming days.
San Bernardino County first hired Copeland Lowery in October 2002. The following year the firm began sending the county regular legislative updates and monitored congressional activities. Perhaps most importantly, the lobbyists obtained earmarked projects for the county. Each month, the firm sent the county a detailed bill.
The monthly bills are among the thousands of documents subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California and made public under California's open records law. The FBI, the Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service, and the Internal Revenue Service are examining the relationships between several California counties and cities, Copeland Lowery and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. As a result of publicity surrounding the investigation, Copeland Lowery has disbanded.
In the wake of the federal investigation, the firm is reviewing all of its lobbying disclosure reports, said spokesman Patrick Dorton. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Copeland Lowery had amended some 35 reports -- adding some $1.4 million in lobbying fees. Dorton said several of the updated reports showed that Copeland Lowery had over reported some fees.
"The firm is continuing to review its lobbying disclosure forms," Dorton told National Journal. "The firm is planning to amend the 2003 and 2004 statements involving [San Bernardino County] in the coming days." He said the firm planned to amend those forms even before being contacted by National Journal.
After San Bernardino signed a contract with Copeland Lowery in October 2002, the firm was paid $12,500 a month until the end of 2004, when the retainer was increased to $16,500 a month. The Copeland Lowery lobbyist's name appearing on each of the contracts is Jeff Shockey, who served on Lewis's personal staff before going to work for Copeland Lowery. He became deputy staff director of the Appropriations Committee in 2005, when Lewis became chairman. He recently attracted attention when he filed a financial disclosure statement showing that he had received a $2 million buyout when he left the firm.
In exchange for the retainer, Copeland Lowery performed various duties for the county-ranging from preparing a monthly legislative report to holding meetings with House and Senate staff. Many of the tasks are detailed in monthly bills sent to the county by Copeland Lowery. Those bills include details of earmarks the firm obtained for the county. For instance, in August 2003, Copeland Lowery billed the county its normal $12,500. At the same time, according to the bill submitted, the firm "secured funding language" totaling some $38 million for San Bernardino projects in the House versions of the Energy and Water and Transportation Appropriations bills.
For each month, the process appears to be the same: Copeland Lowery submitted a monthly legislative report and a bill, the county sent the firm a check, which the firm then deposited. Copies of the cancelled checks are among those documents released by San Bernardino County.
Most of the money is not reflected in lobbying disclosure reports. In 2003, Copeland Lowery reported receiving less than $10,000, while county records show the firm received almost $140,000. In 2004, it received $168,624 and reported less than $70,000 and in 2005, according to county records, Copeland Lowery received $176,383 and reported $160,000.
Dorton said that the amount paid to Copeland Lowery would not necessarily equal the amount reflected on the lobbying disclosure report because a portion of the county's payment involved non-lobbying activities. However, he said a review of the firm's disclosure reports "is clearly showing a number of inaccuracies."
Law governing the accuracy of lobbying disclosure documents can be vague, according to Washington ethics attorneys, but they questioned why Copeland Lowery was sloppy in filing reports for an account such as San Bernardino County. "It may be difficult to explain," said Kenneth Gross, an attorney with Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom and an expert in government ethics.
Former House of Representatives Counsel Stanley Brand said Copeland Lowery might argue that its work was not direct lobbying, but after hearing the details of the firm's work, he said that would be a difficult claim to make. "The contract does sound like lobbying," he said. "They have some issues they have to confront."
Brand said that if Copeland Lowery were found to have intentionally filed false reports, it could face civil penalties. Principals also could be charged under statutes dealing with filing false statements.