Questions Surround Conduct of House Appropriations Chair

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) has been a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee for most of his 28-year career. Last year, he became the panel's chairman. Now questions are being asked about Lewis' ties to former Rep. Bill Lowery, a Republican who became a lobbyist.

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The man who is supposed to keep a tight grip on the federal purse strings is under scrutiny. Federal investigators are looking into ties between California Congressman Jerry Lewis, who is chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and a Washington lobbying firm.

A former defense contractor has accused Lewis of pressing him to do favors for a partner in that same lobbying firm. And that partner is former Congressman Bill Lowery, one of Lewis's closest friends.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Back in the early 1990s, Tom Casey ran a San Diego defense company that digitized paper blueprints. The Pentagon didn't have much money for the project, so Casey tried to convince lawmakers it was worthwhile. And, in 1993, the Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee set aside millions of dollars for document conversion. Casey says, shortly after that funding was approved, he heard from a member of the sub-committee, California Republican Jerry Lewis. Lewis wanted a favor for a friend who'd just left Congress - Bill Lowery.

Mr. TOM CASEY (Business owner): Jerry Lewis called me at home at night with the purpose of asking that I seriously consider hiring Bill Lowery as a lobbyist, and that he thought it would serve both of us well if I provided Bill with stock options in our company.

HORSLEY: Casey was reluctant, fearing the stock options might look like payback for the newly approved funding. That's when, he says, Lewis suggested he could disguise the transaction by awarding Lowery options in a Canadian holding company. Casey still declined, but he and his employees did contribute at least $5,000 that year to Congressman Lewis's campaign.

A spokesman for Lewis denies Casey's stock options story, saying the Congressman didn't even know there was a Canadian stock exchange.

Jennifer Gore, of the watchdog Project on Government Oversight, says if Lewis did ask for such a favor, it's a very serious charge.

Ms. JENNIFER GORE (Communications Director, Project for Government Oversight): It's also a statement of the problems that we have with earmarking - the lack of transparency in that process.

HORSLEY: The earmark in this case set aside $14 million to buy and test document conversion systems from Casey's company and competitors. Casey says he, personally, helped draft the provision with the help of a Lewis aide named Letitia White.

Mr. CASEY: Jerry Lewis asked Letitia to take me down to the Defense Appropriations staff room and go down and input the language. A couple of people went out, I guess, and got coffee, you know, just because I was sitting in their chair, but my impression was, it was extremely commonplace; nobody seemed fazed by it, whatsoever.

HORSLEY: A spokesman for Letitia White says she has no recollection of the event Casey describes. A spokesman for Lewis insists it never happened.

But, as early as 1994, the trade journal Federal Computer Week was reporting that Letitia White worked closely with Casey's company to get funding for the document conversion project. And the journal's editor-in-chief, Chris Dorobek, says Congressman Lewis, himself, was the project's principal sponsor.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER DOROBEK (Editor-in-Chief, Federal Computer Week): He appeared to play the biggest role, you know, on the Hill, as an advocate for this company, and was sort of pushing it along.

HORSLEY: Federal Computer Week also noted in 1994, that Letitia White bought stock in Casey's company one week before the critical funding was approved. White's spokesman says the purchase was properly disclosed. Three years ago, White left Lewis's office and went to work for the same lobbying firm as Bill Lowery, the former Congressman whom Casey says Lewis tried to win stock options for.

Congress ultimately set aside nearly $200 million for document conversion, but much of that money went, not to Casey's firm, but to a rival company set up by a onetime associate of his, Brent Wilkes. That name is familiar now because former Congressman Duke Cunningham has admitted taking bribes from Wilkes in exchange for steering government business his way. Casey doubts Cunningham could have arranged those earmarks for Wilkes without the knowledge of Congressman Lewis, since Lewis then chaired the defense sub-committee.

Mr. CASEY: I would find it very surprising if he was authorizing a series of earmarks for Brent Wilkes, who he also knew very, very well and, yet, did not really realize some of the implications of what was going on.

HORSLEY: Casey is now sharing his story with federal investigators who are scrutinizing the activity of both Wilkes and Lewis.

Scott Horsley, NPR news, San Diego.

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