Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) dramatically slashed the salary of a top aide in 2002, dropping the aide’s pay low enough for her to evade federal conflict-of-interest laws when she became a lobbyist in 2003.
Letitia White, who was then overseeing earmarks for the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, had been earning well above the threshold of 75 percent of what a Member of Congress earned in 1999, 2000 and 2001 — a level that would have prohibited her from lobbying Lewis or the subcommittee, which he then chaired, for a year after her departure from Capitol Hill.
House records show White saw her income drop by more than $11,000 in 2002, her final year on Capitol Hill, putting her below the ceiling for the post-employment lobbying ban by a mere $80 in her final 11 months on staff. That drop in White’s pay came from the portion of her salary that she received from Lewis’ personal office, which is directly overseen by Arlene Willis, Lewis’ wife and chief of staff.
When she joined a lobbying firm with close ties to Lewis in early January 2003, White already had a pair of defense contractor clients under her belt on her first day of work — and seven more signed inside of two months.
Escaping the cooling-off period most top staffers face because of her pay cut, White immediately began lobbying Lewis and his Defense subcommittee. By the end of 2003 she had raked in $670,000 in lobbying fees from the predominantly defense industry clients she had brought into Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton and Shockey, as the firm was then known. And by 2004, White was earning in excess of $1 million a year at the firm, with her clients paying almost $1.5 million in fees, records show.
The salary move by Lewis — now the chairman of the full Appropriations Committee — also raises questions about the lengths Lewis went to accomodate White and former Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.).
Lowery, his firm and its clients are at the center of an investigation involving their relationship with Lewis, a sprawling federal probe into the practice of lobbying for earmarks. Lewis and the firm have contended they acted ethically, saying that the tens of millions of dollars in earmarks to Lowery’s clients were procured under the normal ways in which business is conducted on Capitol Hill.
Lewis, in a statement given to Roll Call on Wednesday, reiterated he has acted within ethical bounds. “I have always made every effort to carefully follow the rules of the House of Representatives in all aspects of my Congressional work. I am confident that any review will confirm this,” Lewis said.
Patrick Dorton, a spokesman retained by the firm speaking on behalf of White, said that her pay cut in 2002 was “pretty insignificant” and said she received permission from the House ethics committee to begin lobbying immediately after leaving Lewis.
Neither Lewis’ office, his legal team, nor Dorton or anyone connected to Copeland Lowery would comment on the motivation behind White’s sudden pay cut in early 2002 and whether it was an intentional manipulation of her salary to allow her to lobby Lewis in 2003.
Federal laws governing conflicts-of-interest for legislative branch staffers set a clear threshold for who will be affected by the one-year ban on lobbying, placing the prohibition on any Congressional staffer who earns salary equal to or above 75 percent of a Member’s salary. In 2002, Members earned $150,000, making the 75 percent mark $112,500 for those facing the cooling-off period.
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