Even though he has come under investigation for his ties to a lobbyist whose clients have benefited from millions of dollars in congressional earmarks, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) was among the top lawmakers securing money for special projects in this year's spending bills, a watchdog group's analysis has found.
Lewis, the senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, secured $137 million in earmarks on his own or working with other lawmakers. His was the fifth-highest total in the House and more than eight times the average secured by a member of Congress, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Democrats highlighted earmarking scandals in their successful 2006 campaign to win control of Congress, but spending bills drafted under their rule for the 2008 fiscal year were still loaded with 12,881 earmarks costing more than $18 billion, the group said.
That is down from the earmark high set in 2005 when Republicans were in the majority, but short of the 50% cut in earmarks that House Democratic leaders had promised. Brendan Daly, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), said that Democrats had "promised earmark reform in the 2006 campaign and we have kept that promise."
Earmarking is a practice in which funds for special projects are inserted into appropriations bills without going through normal budgeting and review procedures. Critics say this often occurs at lobbyists' behest and with little, if any, public scrutiny. Lawmakers from both parties have defended earmarking as a way to show their constituents that they are getting something back for the tax dollars they send to Washington.
The analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense was possible because Congress only recently began requiring lawmakers to identify their earmarks, opening to public scrutiny what had been a largely secret process.
Although Pelosi has spoken of "draining the swamp" of earmarks, she was among the top 25 earmarkers, the analysis found. Working alone and with colleagues, she secured $94.3 million in earmarks for special projects.
By contrast, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) neither requested nor received any earmarks for his district.
Earmarks have been a hot topic on Capitol Hill because of their explosion -- from 1,439 in 1995 to more than 13,000 in 2005 -- and because of scandals involving former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, both of whom are now in prison on corruption-related charges.
The study found that House and Senate leaders and appropriations committee members had the highest earmark totals. Overall, the 72 members of the House Appropriations Committee brought in the most projects -- an average of nearly $59 million, about 2 1/2 times the nearly $23 million the rest of the House averaged, the group reported.
At the top of the House list is Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican recently named to complete Trent Lott's Senate term. Wicker, who was a member of the House Appropriations Committee, had about $178 million in earmarks. He is followed by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, with $176 million. Next are Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), a former appropriations chairman, with $169 million; House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) with $139 million; and Lewis.
Jim Specht, a Lewis spokesman, said Wednesday that his boss believes that members of Congress, and not Washington bureaucrats, "best understand the value of federal expenditures in their districts."
"It is important to remember that congressional earmarks result in no additional spending. If recommendations of members of Congress are ignored, the spending would be left to the bureaucrats in each agency," he said. "The congressman has made no secret of the spending recommendations he makes, and is convinced the federal funds have been well spent in one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States."
In May 2006, federal authorities in Los Angeles began looking into the relationship between Lewis and Washington lobbyist Bill Lowery, a former congressman from San Diego. Lewis helped secure millions of dollars in earmarks for Lowery's clients. The status of the investigation, which grew out of the Cunningham case, is not publicly known.
In 2007, Lewis collected $59,000 in donations from Lowery, members of his lobbying firm, and clients, some of whom received earmarks supported by Lewis. Those contributions represented about 16% of the money Lewis raised in 2007.
Lewis' lawyer, Robert C. Bonner of Los Angeles, declined to comment Wednesday.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for Lowery's firm, said there was no connection between donations and earmarks.
"There are a number of individuals at the firm who have always supported Congressman Lewis and will continue to do so," he said, because Lewis is "doing a great job for his constituents, for California and for the country."
Among the earmarks Lewis secured in recent spending bills were $238,754 for the San Bernardino County Museum for exhibits; $196,000 for development of a civic and community youth center in Desert Hot Springs; and $383,186 to Azusa Pacific University for a nursing program.
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.