Business Booming for Lobbyists Under Investigation for Cozy Ties to California Rep

A lobby firm connected to a federal investigation has seen business boom this year for its clients, many of whose projects are in a powerful House appropriator's district.

The House Appropriations Committee's ranking member, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), has sponsored or co-sponsored $55 million worth of earmarks in this year's defense spending bill -- close to half of the funds won by the California Republican in the legislation -- for clients represented by one firm.

A former appropriations aide to Lewis, Letitia White, and former Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.), who is friendly with Lewis, work at the company, Innovative Federal Strategies (IFS).

A Lewis spokesman, Jim Specht, wrote in an e-mail that all the congressman's projects have merit. Long before any lobbyist represented several of the companies awarded with earmarks this year, the lawmaker had worked with them, according to Specht.

"Who represents them has no bearing on the value of the projects," Specht said. "The companies you are talking about have hundreds of jobs in his district."

"When Rep. Lewis meets with any lobbyist, including [IFS], he always meets with the client as well," Specht added.

Formerly known as Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, IFS reportedly fell under the government's watch for its ties to Lewis. Federal authorities subpoenaed some of its clients' internal files in 2006. The firm split under the weight of the government's investigation, losing two of its name Democratic partners as well as clients.

IFS appears to have found a niche in representing interests in Lewis's district, but its clients have secured earmarks from other lawmakers as well. IFS focuses on lobbying appropriations bills, according to its disclosure forms.

"IFS's consulting work on Capitol Hill is no different than the work done by thousands of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington on a daily basis," a spokesman for the firm, Patrick Dorton, said. "Many of the programs we work on are supported by multiple members."

Earmarks, specific projects advocated by members and mostly included in spending legislation, have multiplied over the years. It's not unusual for lawmakers to try to win as much funds as possible for their districts to help their constituents back home.

Yet some argue Lewis's relationship with IFS and its lobbyists is too close.

"Despite all the scrutiny, she is still the gatekeeper to Rep. Jerry Lewis," said Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a budget watchdog group, said of White. "He can still be the rainmaker for his favorite lobbyist and his favorite firm."

Lobby groups facing similar probes by the federal government have buckled under the glare of investigation. Once a major Republican firm, Alexander Strategy Group went out of business after being tied to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Members likewise have faced questions from watchdog groups and federal investigators over the earmarking process. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) had three of his earmarks removed from the agriculture appropriations bill that were falling under heavy scrutiny.

In an analysis of lobbying disclosure forms, letters filed by Lewis declaring no financial interest in his earmarks and data compiled by TCS, the Hill found that 19 of the 39 earmarks in the defense appropriations bill requested by Lewis -- worth $112 million overall in disclosed amounts -- were directed to IFS clients. Several of the companies also employ lobbyists outside of IFS.

The California Republican sponsored 14 earmarks alone, while other members signed off on five with Lewis.

According to the most recent lobbying disclosure forms, White has lobbied for nine of 12 clients granted earmarks from Lewis in the defense bill. Lowery lobbied for two.

A lobbyist who worked at the firm is now in Lewis's office. Jeffrey Shockey, who had worked for Lewis previously, rejoined his staff in 2005. Shockey earned close to $2 million in compensation from the firm when he returned to Capitol Hill.

Specht wrote in an e-mail that Shockey is not involved in decisions on earmarks and that he "formally recused himself from any of the projects Congressman Lewis supports when he returned to work for the Appropriations Committee."

Letitia White's husband, Richard, secured earmarks from Lewis. A lobbyist with his own firm -- Richard White Public Affairs Consulting -- he lobbied Lewis for client Magneto Inductive Systems Limited.

"That is a very good company that does very good work. It is in the congressman's district," Richard White said.

Magneto works with magnetic detonation devices for various military munitions, according to Richard White. Lewis set aside two earmarks, worth $4 million each for the company.

Firm employees' ties to the congressman drew scrutiny from the federal government last summer.

"Congressman Lewis has never been personally contacted about any investigation," Specht said.

Dorton declined to comment on the investigation.

Under its new name, IFS's employees have remained active in political fundraising. The firm has contributed close to $25,000 to politicians' campaign funds in roughly the last 12 months. White gave $1,000 to Lewis in late March.

General Atomics has employed the firm since 2003. One $5 million earmark in this year's defense spending bill directed toward the company was sponsored by Lewis and other members.

"We tend to not get rid of anyone just because some allegation is out there," General Atomics's vice president of Washington operations, Gary Hopper, said. "They have a lot of great individuals over there … They provide a lot of research capability."

Only one of Lewis's earmarks -- $3 million for the Lewis Center for Educational Research -- in the defense appropriations bill was challenged. Rep. Jeff Flake's (R-Ariz.) amendment to cut its spending was easily struck down though, with 353 members voting against the provision.

AlterNet is making this material available in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107: This article is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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