SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
I'm Scott Horsley, in California. Cal State University in San Bernardino is not the sort of school that ordinarily wins competitive federal research grants. But a local congressman, Jerry Lewis, 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 dollars this year, to train business students from historically black colleges.
Mr. Clifford Young (Federal Relations, Cal State University): We took that to NASA, they said they liked the program but they never would fund the program. And we took it to DOD, and 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.
HORSLEY: Young says CSU San Bernardino's funding proposals have to stand on theirown 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.
Mr. Young: Let me put it like this, relationships are important, okay? In life, period.
HORSLEY: For Congressman Lewis, a key relationship is that with his good friend, and former House colleague, Bill Lowrey, who's now a partner in a Washington lobbying firm. An investigation by the Copley News Service found Lowrey'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 San Diego Congressman, Duke Cunningham, admitted taking bribes from the president of ADCS to steer government business his way.
Neither Lewis nor Lowrey 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.
Mr. KEITH ASHDOWN (Taxpayers for Common Sense): There's a lot of debate about what's illegal, but what's scandalous is what is legal. In this case, the Congressman is able to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to clients of Lowrey's firm. He then receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions back. The perfect quid pro quo. And everything they're doing is aboveboard and legal.
HORSLEY: Ashdown notes that a long time assistant to Congressman Lewis, Letitia White, now works for Lowrey's lobbying firm. And says she's been extraordinarily successful winning earmarks for her clients.
Mr. ASHDOWN: We hear around the Congress and in the defense industry that if you want to make Jerry Lewis happy, you got to keep Letitia White happy. And so that's how it works, and that's how everyone knows it works.
HORSLEY: Neither Bill Lowrey, nor Latitia White returned calls for comment. But Congressman Lewis says he's never recommended that a defense contractor seek White's help.
LEWIS: When she went to the, the private sector, she applied the same principals and high standards, and willingness to work, that she did, did when she was with me. And because of that, she has been immensely successful. She's a very talented person who has made a difference for a lot of her clients.
HORSLEY: With lawmakers under increased scrutiny, USA Today reported last week that Lewis took more than $130 thousand dollars in campaign contributions from people connected to a New York hedge fun concerned with a Navy project before his committee. Lewis says he's, "darn sensitive to keep arm's 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.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.