Federal prosecutors have begun an investigation into Rep. Jerry Lewis, the Californian who serves as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, government officials and others said, signaling the spread of a San Diego corruption investigation.
The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles has issued subpoenas in an investigation into the relationship between Lewis, a Republican from Redlands, Calif., and a Washington lobbyist linked to disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, three people familiar with the investigation said.
The investigation is part of an expanding federal investigation stemming from Cunningham's conviction for accepting $2.4 million in bribes and favors from defense contractors, according to the three sources.
It is not clear where the investigation is headed or what evidence the government has. But it suggests that investigators are looking past Cunningham to other legislators and, perhaps, the largely secret "earmarking" system that members of Congress use to allocate funds.
Lewis said yesterday that he was not aware of any investigation, had not been contacted by any investigator and could not understand why he would be investigated.
"For goodness sake, why would they be doing that?" Lewis said.
The government is looking into the connection between Lewis and longtime friend Bill Lowery, the sources said. Lowery, now a lobbyist, is a former congressman from San Diego.
As chairman of the appropriations panel, Lewis has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts for many of Lowery's clients, one of the sources said.
Lewis said he knew Lowery well, having spent 12 years in Congress with him, but he said he never provided favorable treatment or earmarks for Lowery's clients.
"Absolutely not," Lewis said. He said all the earmarks he authorized benefited "my constituents and my people." He said he was particularly proud of helping fund programs such as the cancer treatment center at Loma Linda University, a client of Lowery's. "That would never have been accomplished without an earmark," Lewis said.
The Lewis investigation is in the early stages and has not been presented to a grand jury, the sources said; they spoke on condition of anonymity because they are either involved in the investigation or are not authorized to speak about ongoing investigations.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the office of U.S. Attorney Deborah Yang, said that, as a matter of policy, he could not confirm or deny any investigation it might be conducting.
The investigation focuses on what one source said was an "unusually" close relationship between Lewis and Lowery, who served on the House Appropriations Committee together from 1985 to 1993.
Shortly after leaving Congress, Lowery founded Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, a Washington lobbying firm that includes among its largest clients Brent R. Wilkes, a defense contractor who is the focus of a separate investigation in San Diego.
Wilkes has been identified by his lawyer as the unindicted "co-conspirator No. 1" in the Cunningham corruption case.
In that case, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes and favors from "co-conspirator No. 1" and his business associate, Mitchell Wade, who has pleaded guilty to bribing Cunningham. Both Cunningham and Mitchell are cooperating with federal investigators.
Wilkes and his companies have given Lewis at least $60,000 in campaign contributions over the years, making them among the lawmaker's largest contributors.
At the same time, Wilkes has paid Lowery's firm more than $160,000 in lobbying fees.
According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan research organization, Lewis has earmarked at least $70 million in federal funds for a mapping software company that has its headquarters in Redlands. The company, Environmental Systems Research Inc., is one of Lowery's largest clients and has paid more than $320,000 in lobbying fees, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
Jeff Shockey, a key Lewis staffer, went to work for Lowery as a lobbyist in 1999 and then returned to Lewis' staff last year. According to a source familiar with the investigation, Shockey received $600,000 in severance payments from Lowery's firm when he left to return to Lewis' staff as deputy director for the House Appropriations Committee, with an annual salary of $170,000.
Shockey could not be reached for comment. John Scofield, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, said Shockey and the committee had had "no contact with any entity of any kind," referring to investigators.
Peter Pae writes for the Los Angeles Times.