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Legislators Solicit Defense Fund for Lewis

Times Staff Writer

Declaring that they have “an extremely personal favor to ask,” six Republican lawmakers have solicited $500 donations from special interests to help pay the legal bills of Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange), who faces trial on charges he forged former President Reagan’s name on campaign letters.

The lawmakers, including Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson of La Habra and former GOP leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, mailed the appeal last Friday to a large number of interest groups that have a stake in bills pending before the Legislature.

The solicitation says, in part: “We have formed a ‘defense fund’ for John to help him pay his enormous legal bills. We know that we have asked a lot of you over the years, but this means a great deal to us.”

Assemblyman Dennis Brown (R-Los Alamitos) said Tuesday he launched the effort about three months ago hoping to raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for the John Lewis Defense Fund. Brown, who signed the fund-raising pitch, estimated the fund has received about $15,000 in donations.

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Also signing the letter were Assemblymen William Baker of Danville and Frank Hill of Whittier and Sen. Edward Royce of Anaheim.

Brown said the solicitation letter was mailed to 550 lobbyists, political action committees and associations. They were urged to chip in $500 a person to attend a cocktail reception next month at a capital restaurant on behalf of Lewis, who is independently wealthy.

Brown said friends of Lewis in Orange County also have mailed out two or three other solicitation letters to business associates and Lewis political supporters seeking help on behalf of the lawmaker. Brown would not disclose the names of the people who sent the letters.

Lewis was indicted Feb. 6 in connection with the “Reagan” letter and later pleaded innocent. The letters were mailed in 1986 to hundreds of thousands of voters in six Assembly districts, even though the White House had denied Assembly Republicans permission to use the President’s name, according to grand jury transcripts.

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Lewis ordered his staff members to send at least three of the forged letters, then tried to cover up his role when the White House investigated, witnesses testified.

Lewis could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Previously, he has portrayed the case as a political vendetta on the part of Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, a Democrat who is running for governor.

Lewis, Brown and Nolan met at USC and the three have remained friends. Once in the Assembly, they helped form the cadre of Republicans known as “cavemen” for their conservative views.

At the time Lewis was indicted, state prosecutors also sought to indict Assemblyman Nolan for his role in the forgery but decided they could not prove that Nolan had committed a crime, according to a state prosecutor. Nolan and Assemblyman Hill--who both signed the fund-raising letter--also are among the known legislative targets of a current federal investigation into Capitol political corruption.

In their solicitation, the lawmakers said Lewis, heir to a dog food fortune, has “already paid tens of thousands of dollars for his own defense” and with his case heading to trial Sept. 25 his bills are mounting.

Lewis last October reported paying $20,764 from his campaign fund to the firm of his Sacramento lawyer, Clyde Blackmon, according to a statement filed with the secretary of state.

But Assemblyman Brown said that Lewis has received a legal opinion from the legislative counsel’s office saying that voter-approved Proposition 73 now prohibits such payments from campaign funds, prompting Brown to form the defense fund.

Brown said donations to the fund will not be considered political contributions, but instead regarded as gifts to be reported by Lewis on his annual economic disclosure statement.

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Officials of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the state Franchise Tax Board said that in all probability Lewis will not have to pay income tax on the contributions.


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