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Legal Fees Are Drain on Lewis' War Chest

The congressman from Redlands has paid lawyers $750,000 amid a federal lobbying probe.

October 18, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), the House Appropriations Committee chairman whose ties to lobbyists have come under scrutiny, has spent more than $750,000 from his campaign fund for defense lawyers, according to his latest spending report.

Federal investigators are examining Lewis' association with lobbyists who have secured millions of dollars in congressional earmarks for their clients. Lobbyists and their clients have contributed heavily to Lewis' political war chests, records show.

Lewis has denied any wrongdoing. But the investigation is taking a toll on his campaign treasury.

Legal fees were his single biggest expense for the most recent period: More than $550,000 was paid to the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher between July 1 and Sept. 30.

And he paid the firm a $200,000 retainer in June.

"Congressman Lewis has availed himself of excellent legal representation so that this matter may be resolved expeditiously while he focuses his efforts on doing the work of the people of the 41st District of California," his spokeswoman, Barbara J. Comstock, said.

"We are confident that Congressman Lewis has honorably served his constituents and that he will be fully exonerated once this investigation is completed," Comstock said, adding that Lewis had cleared the use of campaign funds to pay legal fees with the House Ethics Committee.

His lead lawyers are Robert Bonner, who once headed the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Joseph Warin, a onetime federal prosecutor.

In a twist, U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang of Los Angeles, whose office has been investigating Lewis, announced Tuesday that she was resigning her federal job to join Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. She could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman for the law firm said Yang would have "no involvement whatsoever" with Lewis.

Even with the legal fees, Lewis -- whose challenger is so little-known and -funded that the congressman hasn't hired a campaign manager or opened a campaign office -- entered the home stretch of the campaign with more than $1 million cash on hand, according to his report.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that posted Lewis' legal fees on its website, said some of the congressman's donors "work at some of the most prolific lobby shops specializing in federal earmarks."

Earmarking is the largely secret process that committee chairs and other powerful members of the House and Senate use to insert spending directives into pending legislation without going through the normal budget review process.

The use of earmarks has soared in recent years.

Lewis isn't the only member of Congress who is spending campaign funds for legal fees.

Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), whose ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff have become an issue in his reelection bid, used more than $38,000 from his campaign funds to pay an attorney to deal with the Justice Department on his behalf.

Doolittle's office said in a statement that the attorney, David Barger, contacted the agency to express "the congressman's willingness to be helpful and satisfy the Justice Department that the congressman had done nothing wrong."

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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