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Powerful Lawmaker's Relative Linked Financially to Contractor

June 08, 2006|Peter Pae, Tom Hamburger and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A political fundraising committee headed by a defense contractor has paid thousands of dollars in fees to the stepdaughter of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) at a time when the contractor has been lobbying Congress for funding.

Lewis' stepdaughter, Julia Willis-Leon, has been paid more than $42,000 by the Small Biz Tech Political Action Committee, according to campaign finance records. The PAC is led by Nicholas Karangelen, founder and president of Trident Systems Inc.

Records show the company received at least $11.7 million in earmarked funds in recent defense spending bills over which Lewis' committee has jurisdiction.

The Small Biz Tech PAC was created early last year "to establish a strong and clear voice for small technology businesses" dealing with Congress, according to its website, which features a photo of Lewis at one of its events.

PACs customarily collect money from donors and distribute it to political figures in the form of campaign contributions. But in the case of Small Biz Tech, almost one-third of the $115,350 it has reported raising was given to Lewis' stepdaughter, according to figures in its financial disclosure reports.

In fact, the payments to Willis-Leon exceeded the $15,600 total it has contributed to political candidates and other PACs.

Lewis is chairman of the House committee that -- with its Senate counterpart -- writes all federal spending bills. He is a prominent figure in the broad federal investigation into the relationships that powerful members of Congress and their senior aides have with the government contractors and lobbyists who seek to curry favor with them.

In particular, federal investigators are probing lawmakers' use of earmarking, a practice in which spending provisions are inserted into appropriations bills without the normal budget and review procedures.

Often, senior congressional aides who have helped write earmarks go to work for the lobbying firms that have sought the spending provisions, and use their contacts with their former employers to further the interests of their clients.

This revolving door -- along with the rest of the earmark system -- has become controversial because its operations are largely shielded from public view and because of the potential for improper influence over spending decisions.

A federal grand jury in California is looking into Lewis' activities.

He has denied any wrongdoing and has said that he has not been contacted by investigators.

"I have always made every effort to meet the highest ethical standards in all aspects of my congressional work," Lewis said in a statement. "I am confident that any review of my work will confirm this."

The relationships among powerful lawmakers such as Lewis, their aides and the lobbying firms and clients that seek their help can become complex -- as the case of Lewis' stepdaughter and the PAC illustrates.

Willis-Leon, who lives in Las Vegas, received the bulk of the payments for her work as a fundraiser, the PAC reported. She is also listed on its website as its director. The money was paid out between February 2005 and March 2006.

"I am proud to have worked for the PAC, and I am proud of what it is doing," Willis-Leon said in a brief interview. She disputed the amount of her compensation -- which was calculated from government records by the Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog group -- but did not say what the correct amount was.

Lewis has come under scrutiny in part because of his close ties to a lobbying firm, Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, in which former Rep. Bill Lowery is a partner. Another partner, Letitia White, is a former Lewis aide with ties to Small Biz Tech PAC and its founder.

The firm's activities are being examined by federal investigators partly because Copeland Lowery represented ADCS Inc., a defense contracting firm headed by Brent R. Wilkes, who has been identified as a co-conspirator in the bribery case against former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).

Other Copeland Lowery clients have included businesses, cities and institutions in Lewis' district that have received earmarks. Lewis has defended the earmarks he authorized as serving his constituents.

White, the Lowery partner, played a key role in handling earmarks while working for the congressman. She now lobbies for defense and other firms seeking government funds.

And White has close ties to the PAC's chairman, Karangelen. Together, they own a $1-million town house in Washington that has been listed as the business address of Small Biz Tech PAC; White's half-interest in the town house was first reported by a Harper's Magazine blog.

White's lobby shop represents Karangelen's company, Trident Systems.

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