Growing up in the Inland Empire, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) was such a star at San Bernardino High School that he captained the swimming team and his basketball jersey was later retired. He went on to build an insurance business, raise seven children, serve on a school board and enter the state Legislature before going on to Congress.
And as a member -- now chairman -- of the House Appropriations Committee, he has sent so much federal money home and been so attentive to local officials that his name is on facilities everywhere. On a community center in Highland, a San Bernardino swimming pool, a University of Redlands research center and more.
“If I want to speak to him or his office, I can contact them at any time,” says Redlands Mayor Jon Harrison.
Yet even though the mayor can talk to Lewis and his staff whenever he needs to, the Redlands city government pays $30,000 a year to a Washington lobbying firm for help getting federal funds for local projects.
Redlands is not alone. Over the last few years, at least 19 Inland Empire cities, schools, hospitals and government institutions have paid fees totaling several million dollars to a single lobbying firm -- in large part to help them get federal money from a congressman whose door was already open to them.
Why local officials are hiring a single firm to help them deal with such an approachable congressman is not entirely clear.
“Why do they feel a need to hire a middleman?” asked Michael Franc, a former Republican congressional staffer now at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “It certainly raises eyebrows.”
Whatever the reasons -- and different officials offer different explanations -- one thing does seem clear: Money is showering down on everyone involved.
The firm has collected hefty fees. Lewis has received several hundred thousand dollars in vital campaign contributions from the lobby shop. And local officials have apparently concluded that hiring the firm is the way to get more federal largesse.
The firm is Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, and it has close ties to the congressman. Members of the firm include former Rep. Bill Lowery, a Lewis friend, and Letitia White, a former senior aide in Lewis’ office. Jeff Shockey had been a Lewis aide, then left to work for the lobbying firm and has now rejoined the congressman’s staff. Shockey’s wife works as a subcontractor for Copeland Lowery.
Both the firm and Lewis have drawn the attention of a federal investigation into the relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers who put funding for parochial and special-interest projects into spending bills.
The U.S. attorney in Los Angeles is exploring whether Lewis might have benefited financially, or otherwise misused his office, in earmarking funds for Copeland Lowery clients. Earmarking is the process by which committee chairmen and other congressional insiders insert spending provisions into legislation without going through the normal budget system.
A number of public agencies in Lewis’ district have received subpoenas seeking documents related to the hiring of Copeland Lowery.
The firm has also represented ADCS Inc., a defense contractor headed by Brent R. Wilkes, who has been identified as a co-conspirator in the bribery case of convicted former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).
Copeland Lowery’s fundraising effort for Lewis has been substantial: Of the $1.3 million he has raised for his political action committee in the last six years, more than a third has come from sources associated with the firm.
The congressman in turn distributed funds to other GOP lawmakers as part of his successful effort to win their backing for the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee in 2005.
Lewis has denied any wrongdoing and said investigators have not contacted him. He said all his actions were designed to serve his district.
Lewis spokesman Jim Specht said the congressman has never recommended to anybody that they need a lobbyist to speak with him.
“Many members of city councils, mayors and even city staff call our office all the time,” Specht said.
Some local officials say they hired the firm even though Lewis was accessible, because it provides technical help in dealing with the federal bureaucracy. The manager of the Lake Arrowhead Community Services District, which pays Copeland Lowery $60,000 a year, said in a recent memo that the firm had helped secure three federal grants totaling $680,0000.
Another official attributed at least one decision to hire the firm to personal contact with Shockey, who is from Redlands. According to lobbying disclosure forms, Shockey registered the 19 Inland Empire city and institutional clients.
Others say using the firm indicates a tacit understanding by local officials that doing so is how the game is played.
Loma Linda City Councilman Robert Christman said neither Lewis’ office nor the lobbying firm had suggested that hiring Copeland Lowery would improve access to the congressman. But he added, “They don’t have to say that. We know that without them saying it.
“People have left his staff to go to work at that firm,” he said. “You don’t have to draw a big picture....”
Christman has been active in San Bernardino County politics for two decades. In addition to the Loma Linda council, he is on the Inland Valley Development Agency and the San Bernardino Associated Governments boards. All are Copeland Lowery clients.
Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, called it “troubling that the very people that sent Chairman Lewis to Washington” have to hire a lobbyist.
“Lowery and others have become the brokers between legislators and local officials. In the case of Lewis, most of these cities received earmarks before they hired Lowery,” he said, “but now they end up paying the firm a cut of what they have historically received.”
That’s not how some officials in Lewis’ district see it. “We’re not the ones complaining about the relationship, because we have benefited nicely in our area from Congressman Lewis,” Christman said. “Whether the lobbying firm helped us get more money, I can’t say.”
His comment points to the argument some officials make that competition for limited federal funds has become so fierce that local officials may fear that failing to hire the lobbyist could put them at a competitive disadvantage with other local institutions.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for Copeland Lowery, said, “The firm’s consulting work on Capitol Hill is no different than the work done by thousands of lawyers and lobbyist in Washington on a daily basis.”
It is difficult to identify all the local agencies and institutions that have hired the firm, or how much they have paid. For one thing, some clients have worked through another firm that then hired Copeland Lowery.
For example, Loma Linda University Medical Center pays lobbying firm Jacobs & Co. in Los Angeles. In 1999, that firm hired Copeland Lowery, listing the hospital as the sole “affiliated organization.”
Since that time, Copeland Lowery has listed Jacobs & Co. and the hospital as joint clients. The hospital paid Jacobs & Co. at least $120,000 in 2005 to lobby lawmakers on four pieces of legislation. Jacobs & Co. paid $100,000 to Copeland Lowery for work on the same four bills.
Under disclosure rules, lobbyists are not required to report everything they collect from clients. For example, Copeland Lowery reported spending $220,000 since 2002 lobbying for San Bernardino County, but records show the county paid the firm close to $500,000 during that period.
The 19 Copeland Lowery clients identified from disclosure records have paid more than $3 million to the firm since 1998. At least six other agencies just outside Lewis’ district paid the firm nearly $2 million.
The payments have grown substantially in recent years. Of the $3 million from clients in the district, more than $1 million was paid in 2005. The firm only had five clients in the district in 1999; by 2005, it had at least 19.
Yucca Valley, for instance, never had a Washington lobbyist before, but in 2003 it began paying Copeland Lowery $3,000 a month plus expenses.
The University of Redlands has had a longer relationship with the firm. From 1999 through the end of 2005, the school paid Copeland Lowery $680,000 in lobbying fees.
Lewis helped the university secure $4 million for endangered species research, $7.5 million for Salton Sea research and $10 million for a new science center.
The school named one of the buildings in the science center after Lewis. Asked why the school hired the firm, Ron Stephany, vice president for university relations, summed it up in two words: Jeff Shockey.
“He’s a native of Redlands ... and we made the decision to follow him,” Stephany said.
Not every school saw things the same way.
Yi Feng, a senior official at Claremont Graduate University, said two members of the board of one of the university’s schools suggested he contact Shockey.
However, Feng said, “when we presented it to our president, he said he had a philosophical problem with it. It never went anywhere.”