California State University in San Bernardino is not the sort of school that ordinarily wins competitive federal research grants. But the local congressman, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), wields a big checkbook, as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. And Clifford Young, who oversees federal relations for the university, says the school relies on Lewis to win funds for projects that otherwise wouldn't get them, like $1.9 million this year to train business students from historically black colleges.
"We took that to NASA," Young says. "They said they liked the program. But they never would fund the program. We took it to DOD, they said, 'Oh yes, we like this program.' But never would fund it. So eventually, we took it to Congressman Lewis and his staff and they said, 'this is a great idea.'"
Young says CSU San Bernardino's funding proposals have to stand on their own merits. But he admits it doesn't hurt that his local lawmaker holds the most powerful purse strings in Congress, or that the university has a former student on the congressman's staff.
"Let me put it like this: Relationships are important. OK. In life. Period," Young says.
One key relationship for Lewis is with his good friend and former House colleague Bill Lowery, who's now a partner in a Washington lobbying firm. An investigation by the Copley News Service found Lowery's firm and its clients contributed more than a third of all the money raised by Lewis' political action committee over the last six years. The clients include schools like CSU San Bernardino and defense contractors like ADCS. Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) of San Diego admitted taking bribes from the president of ADCS to steer government business his way.
Neither Lewis nor Lowery has been accused of any wrongdoing. But Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense worries about the symbiotic relationship between the lawmaker and the lobbyist.
"There's a lot of debate about what's illegal," Ashdown says. "But what's scandalous is what's legal. In this case, the congressman is able to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars of earmarks to clients of Lowery's firm. He then receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions back. It's a perfect quid pro quo. And everything they're doing is above board and legal."
Ashdown notes that a longtime assistant to Lewis, Letitia White, now works for Lowery's lobbying firm, and says she's been extraordinarily successful in winning earmarks for her clients.
"We hear around the Congress and in the defense industry that if you want to make Jerry Lewis happy, you've got to keep Letitia White happy," Ashdown says. "That's how it works and that's how everyone knows it works."
Neither Bill Lowery nor Letitita White returned calls for comment. But Lewis says he's never recommended that a defense contractor seek White's help.
"When she went to the private sector, she applied the same principles and high standards and willingness to work that she did when she was with me, and because of that she's been immensely successful," Lewis says. "She's a very talented person who has made a difference for a lot of her clients."
With lawmakers under increased scrutiny, USA Today reported last week that Lewis took more than $130,000 in campaign contributions from people connected to a New York hedge fund concerned with a Navy project before his committee. Lewis says he's "darn sensitive to... keep arms' length" from political donors who want to influence legislation.
He hardly needs big campaign contributions to fund his own races. In 13 elections to Congress, Lewis has never won less than 60 percent of the vote. Last time, he ran unopposed.
Instead, Lewis spreads the money among congressional colleagues, who in turn supported his bid to become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Now that he's got that post, Lewis has promised to rein in the number of budget earmarks. But, watchdog Ashdown says, he's still taking care of the people who helped put him there.