The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal on Capitol Hill is dragging the Republicans down. It is “no secret that over the past several months, our reputation as a governing majority has taken a beating,” Congressman Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, told Speaker Dennis Hastert in a letter. “It is clear that continuing indictments, possible indictments, plea deals, tainted campaign contributions, etc., [have] severely eroded public trust.”
Since Abramoff pleaded guilty on January 3 to three felonies involving public corruption, one scandal after another has been exploding across the capital. First there was California congressman Randy Cunningham, a Republican who took $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Then Abramoff’s indictment and plea bargain set off investigations of at least five and perhaps as many as 20 members of Congress. Now there is what might turn out to be a large-scale congressional scandal involving questionable financial dealings between California Republican congressman Jerry Lewis and his friend, lobbyist Bill Lowery. This is particularly startling since Lewis had been mentioned as a possible replacement for the indicted Texas Republican Tom DeLay post as House majority leader. Amid the controversy, Lewis formally withdrew from consideration last Tuesday.
An article in The San Diego Union-Tribune by Jerry Kammer lays bare the extraordinary dealings between Lewis and Lowery and their staffs, intertwined in what the paper calls “The Lewis Family.”
Over the years, Lewis has done one favor after another for Lowery clients, and Lowery and his clients paid the congressman back by contributing what amounted to more than one third of his total campaign kitty. Their relationship began while both men served in Congress during the 1980s and early 1990s. Lowery left in 1993 to become a lobbyist, heading the firm Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White. Lewis continued in Washington, becoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The key to their arrangement is a gimmick called the “earmark,” by which the chair of the Appropriations Committee can attach small favors to spending bills without telling anyone. Abramoff called the Appropriations Committee under Lewis a “favor factory.” And indeed, earmarks have taken off under Lewis. In 1998, Congress OK’d 2,000 earmarks, worth $10.6 billion. By 2004 earmarks had jumped to 15,584, worth $32.7 billion.
As The San Diego Union-Tribune tells the story, Lewis and Lowery shared employees in revolving-door style. A Lewis staffer in charge of earmarks went to work for Lowery and then lobbied her former colleagues in Lewis’s office for earmarks.
“Word is getting around that if you want to be close to Jerry Lewis, it’s a good idea to be close to Bill Lowery,” a former Capitol Hill insider who asked not to be identified told Kammer, saying he “cannot afford to make an enemy out of the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.”
Explaining why he wouldn’t seek to replace DeLay as majority leader, Lewis tried to put on the white hat. “Reforming the appropriations process has been my central focus during the short time I have been chairman of the Appropriations Committee,” Lewis said in a statement. “My goal and plan is to further that reform as I continue as chairman of the committee in the years ahead.”
The front-runner now in the race to replace DeLay is Republican congressman Roy Blunt of Missouri, best known for his advocacy of the Philip Morris—now Altria—tobacco interests. The Hill newspaper late last week reported poll results showing Blunt had a 2-1 lead over his nearest competitor, John Boehner. Blunt divorced his wife of 31 years to marry Abigail Perlman, an Altria lobbyist. Nobody knew the two were an item when Blunt, having just become majority whip, sought to insert a pro–Philip Morris measure into the Homeland Security legislation. Andrew Blunt, the congressman’s son, lobbies for Philip Morris. Altria has given Blunt campaign committees $217,000 in contributions.
Blunt has also done favors for UPS, another of his son’s clients, by sticking a proviso into the Iraq emergency appropriations bill to require that military cargo be carried by majority-owned U.S. firms. That was meant to block foreign competitors of UPS and FedEx from getting a toehold in the profitable wartime postal business. UPS and FedEx together have contributed more than $125,000 to Blunt since 2001.
Another Blunt son, Matt Blunt, is the governor of Missouri. During Matt Blunt’s various campaigns—for Missouri secretary of state and then for governor—he got campaign funds from lobbyists with ties to his father and from a state Republican campaign fund that had received contributions from his dad’s soft-money PAC.
If that’s not enough, Congressman Blunt turns up as a signatory on a letter sent by Abramoff interpreting a gambling law so as to help out the Louisiana Coushatta, one of Abramoff’s clients. The letter, which Abramoff had persuaded then majority leader Tom DeLay to put together, was also signed by Speaker Dennis Hastert and Deputy Whip Eric Cantor. Abramoff donated $8,500 to Blunt’s leadership PAC, raising the question as to whether this was a payoff for Blunt’s help.
At a Public Citizen press conference called to release a report attacking Blunt, Joan Claybrook, the group’s president, said the congressman’s activities amounted to a “racketeering scheme,” adding, “What we’re seeing here is an episode of
The Sopranos.” Asked for comment, Blunt’s office said that if elected majority leader, Blunt would turn his attention to reform of lobbying rules on Capitol Hill.
Last lights look dark
If the Republicans in the House steer clear of the Blunt colossus, they most likely will go for Congressman John Boehner of Ohio. He, too, has financial links with Abramoff. The Center for Responsive Politics reports Boehner got $32,500 in campaign contributions from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff. Public interest groups assailed Boehner in the 1990s for handing out tobacco literature to colleagues on the House floor. The Washington Post reported Boehner’s Freedom Project, a PAC, got $31,500 from four Abramoff tribal clients.
For three years, Boehner ran the so-called “Thursday Group,” a weekly gathering of top lobbyists on the Hill. He has been an ardent backer of the U.S. steel industry.
Another possibility is John Shadegg of Arizona. Along with Blunt and Cantor, Shadegg signed a letter urging Interior Secretary Gale Norton to support Abramoff’s tribal clients. He got $2,500 from Abramoff and/or his lobbying partners from 2001 through 2004. The Associated Press had this to say about Shadegg: “The Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigating the dealings of scandal-plagued Republican super lobbyist Jack Abramoff has learned that Shadegg is among the more than 30 congressional Republicans who signed letters on behalf of Abramoff clients just days after Abramoff gave them money or hosted fundraisers for them.”
Republicans in Congress will have a hard time sidestepping the lobbying scandal. The full force of Abramoff’s plea deal has yet to be felt. Meanwhile, public interest watchdogs are rallying. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a public interest outfit that tracks Abramoff and other Capitol Hill lobbyists, recently filed a complaint with the U.S. attorney general against Lewis, asking the Public Integrity Section to undertake an investigation of the relations between Lewis and Lowery.
Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, says, “Corruption in Congress does not end with Tom DeLay or Jack Abramoff. There is not just one scandal, but a host of unethical activities that need to be investigated.”
Additional reporting: Colin Gustafson