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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.
White had made more than that level in both 2000 and 2001, nearly $118,000 and $125,000, respectively, collecting the lion’s share of her salary from the Appropriations Committee and a chunk from the personal office. But her total salary in 2002 plunged to slightly more than $113,000 in total.
While her yearly total was above the $112,500 mark, Dorton explained that White’s salary drop took place in February 2002. The previous month she had been earning a monthly rate that would have yielded $125,078 and prohibited her from immediately lobbying Lewis and the entire Appropriations Committee.
But in February 2002, and for her remaining months on staff, White was paid at a monthly rate that would have resulted in $112,420 in yearly salaries from Appropriations and the personal office, Dorton said.
Federal laws require a staffer to be paid above that 75 percent mark for 60 days or more in the year before they leave Capitol, and White was above the cooling-off level for just one month. That made it legal for White to lobby Lewis and the entire Appropriations Committee immediately because she was paid $80 less than that yearly rate over her final 11 months.
White took advantage of the manuever and immediately became a big-time lobbyist for defense contractors who needed the help of Lewis and his subcommittee.
She left Capitol Hill on Jan. 8, 2003, according to her last financial disclosure form, and, on the very next day, joined Copeland Lowery as a lobbyist. According to lobbying registration forms, she signed on two contractors, General Atomics and an aeronautical subsidiary of GA, on her first day of work.
On March 29, 2002, White and her husband went on a nearly $9,000, nine-day trip to Italy paid for by General Atomics. House travel records show that one of the purposes of the visit was to examine the contractor’s equipment manufacturing site in Italy.
And in her final year on Lewis’ staff, General Atomics was also a big winner of earmarks from the Defense subcommittee: The contractor took in $6.1 million in two separate earmarks from the fiscal 2003 appropriation, according to a review of the Defense bill by Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group.
One of the earmarks, for $3.5 million, was for a program to help protect the Statue of Liberty from terrorist threats. In the spring of 2003, when White was lobbying for General Atomics, the company paid for Lewis and his wife to visit Liberty Island in the Hudson River.
Another one of her earliest clients, Trident Systems, also received a big line-item in White’s final year overseeing earmarks for the subcommittee, $8 million for technology to survey battlefields, according to Ashdown.
Dorton said that at some unspecified point in 2002, White asked the ethics committee how she should proceed in her search for outside employment, receiving a letter explaining the procedures. “She recused herself from any official activity that involved a prospective employer or client,” he said.
Dorton said White, before leaving the Hill, received oral and written communication from ethics giving her clearance to lobby immediately upon her departure.
White’s lawyers declined to release that letter or the letter regarding her negotiations with prospective clients. The ’03 Defense spending bill cleared Congress by mid-October 2002.
They declined to comment on when she began negotiating to represent General Atomics, Trident and the other seven companies she signed up soon after leaving Lewis’ staff.
For all of 2003, White signed up 16 new clients for Copeland Lowery, predominantly relying on defense contractors, and by the end of 2004 her client roster had grown to 22. She brought in at least $670,000 in fees from her new clients in 2003, and more than doubled that total in 2004, according to lobbying disclosure records.
And White’s clients got large payouts from the subcommittee then overseen by her former boss.
In her first year lobbying, White’s clients received at least $22 million in earmarks from the Defense appropriations measure covering fiscal year 2004. General Atomics received another $3 million for anti-terror work at the Statue of Liberty and and $15.3 million for its aeronautical subsidiary to work on making un-manned aircraft, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
It’s unclear if any of White’s defense industry clients have been subpoenaed. At least nine municipal-based clients of Jeff Shockey — who left Copeland Lowery in January 2005 to return to the Appropriations Committee for Lewis — have received federal grand jury subpoenas.
White was a long-standing employee of Lewis’, whose husband, Richard White, shifted his lobbying practice into defense work in 1999. She’s been described in various media reports as a close ally to the chairman.
As a lobbyist, White and her clients poured donations into Lewis, both to his political action committee and his re-election campaign committee. All told, Copeland Lowery lobbyists, their family members and their clients accounted for 25 percent of the more than $800,000 Lewis raised in 2003 and 2004 for his Future Leaders PAC, which he used to dole out to GOP candidates and committees in his successful campaign to become the full chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
A key factor in the pay cut that allowed White to begin immediately lobbying was payments from Lewis’ personal office, which was overseen by Willis, Lewis’ wife and chief of staff.
White’s pay from Appropriations alone never put her above the 75 percent mark of a Member’s pay, growing at a steady rate from $99,000 in 1999 to almost $109,000 in 2002, records show. But her payments from the personal office put her into the territory that would have required her to observe the one-year lobbying ban.
That salary from the personal office generally included a large fourth-quarter payout, which appears to have been a bonus. For example, in 2001 White received more than $19,000 from the personal office, with more than $8,600 of that coming in the final three months of the year.
In 2002, those payments from the personal office dropped to just $4,700, a decrease that made it possible for her final 11 months on staff to come in at a pay level that allowed her to lobby Lewis in 2003.
She received just $875 from the personal office in her final three months on staff.
Dorton said the drop in pay in 2002 was partly due to an unusually large payment she received in 2001, what he called “the year of 9/11” when she “regularly worked 120-hour weeks.”