When Nick Schwellenbach went down to the House of Representatives' legislative resource center in May to look into the widening Duke Cunningham corruption probe, he noticed a couple of other visitors at a neighboring table -- a man and a woman, both crisply dressed, who were getting attentive service from the office staff.
As the two sets of researchers pored over documents, Schwellenbach realized that they were requesting many of the same files -- namely, financial disclosure and travel filings related to Jeff Shockey and Letitia White, a current and former staffer, respectively, for the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Jerry Lewis of California. Both have also served as lobbyists for a firm co-owned by former San Diego area Congressman Bill Lowery. “They were getting waited on hand and foot,” said Schwellenbach, who works for the nonpartisan corruption-monitoring group the Project on Governmental Oversight (POGO). He thought “these people have to be hotshot reporters at a major paper or else government investigators.”
Then Schwellenbach noticed that when the man stood up at one point, a badge flashed from beneath his jacket. After the duo departed, he noted that the woman had the same name as someone listed as a special agent with the FBI field office in Riverside, California, a city in Lewis's district.
As the federal investigation that led to Cunningham's bribery conviction last November expands to other members of the House Appropriations Committee, many others -- journalists, activists, analysts, and government agents -- are stumbling across one another in paper chases that range from courthouses in California to federal offices in Washington. Of particular concern to federal investigators is the unusually intertwined relationship involving Lewis, some of his staffers, and the Washington lobbying firm of Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White, where his old colleague in Congress is a name partner.
Close observers of the Cunningham situation have suspected since the time of his conviction that it was just the start of a scandal that would unravel for months. Now, after a bit of lull, some new threads are coming loose.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Lewis is the subject of a federal criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles federal grand jury issued subpoenas to at least seven clients of Copeland Lowery, including several represented by Shockey and White, the Lewis staffers (White has moved on, but Shockey still works for Lewis). In June, Harper's magazine and TPMMuckraker.com both reported that White had purchased a million-dollar Capitol Hill property in a partnership with the owner of one of her defense contractor clients, Trident Systems Inc., which in turn had received a $2 million earmark from Lewis this year.
Over the past six years, Lewis has raised $1.3 million for his political action committee. More than a third of that was donated by the partners at Copeland Lowery and their clients, The San Diego Union Tribune has reported. During the same period, Lewis has earmarked an estimated $100 million in federal grants to benefit clients of Lowery's firm. Two former Lewis staffers have worked as lobbyists for Lowery's firm, notably including the aforementioned Shockey, who reportedly earned $1.5 million in salary from Copeland Lowery in 2004. In addition, Shockey received a nearly $2 million “separation package” from the firm when he returned to work as deputy staff director of the appropriations committee. At the same time, Copeland Lowery hired his wife, Alexandra, as a subcontractor. So things went in Tom DeLay's Washington.
Among Copeland Lewis's clients was Brent Wilkes, the San Diego-based defense contractor described as “co-conspirator #1” in the Cunningham plea documents. Wilkes has yet to be indicted but is central to the larger case. Wilkes and his company PAC have donated $60,000 to Lewis (which he has recently donated to charity).
Making matters even more complicated is a recent accusation by Tom Casey, the former head of Audre Recognition Systems, a company for which Wilkes worked as a lobbyist in the early 1990s. Casey told NBC News in June that Lewis had solicited him to provide stock options for his friend Lowery -- a claim Casey has reportedly shared with the FBI.
Numerous calls to Lewis's spokesmen on the appropriations committee and at his office were not returned. “I encourage a thorough review of any project I have helped secure for my constituents,” Lewis said in a statement in June.
What the documents don't reveal is the deeply rooted social network that connects a generation of southern California Republican politicians like Lewis, Cunningham, and Lowery with California defense contractors like Wilkes as well as a coterie of lobbyists, intelligence bureaucrats, and government agents. This fraternity saw its influence grow with the massive security spending that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks and the money-driven congressional majority built by DeLay.
Interviews with colleagues and associates of Wilkes, and his childhood best friend, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, who recently resigned as executive director of the CIA when he was reported to be the subject of a federal corruption investigation, have illuminated the friendships and favors now bringing members of the southern California GOP delegation under intense scrutiny by the Justice Department's public integrity division.
“San Diego is the underbelly of the defense industrial complex,” says Keith Ashdown, of the group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Dirty things happen there, and there are different rules.”
Three decades ago, Lowrey, Foggo, and Wilkes were all members of the San Diego State University Young Republicans. After Foggo joined the CIA and was sent to Central America to fund the Contras, Lowery recruited fellow Young Republican alum Wilkes to help ferry members of Congress down to Central America for a close-up view of the action. While Foggo helped provide the entertainment, Lowery led efforts to win congressional support for the secretly financed war.
Their relationships have endured as their influence increased. As recent reports have revealed, Wilkes has long sponsored weekly poker parties in suites at the Watergate and Westin Grand hotels, hosting Foggo's CIA friends (including top aides to recently resigned CIA director Porter Goss), and former members of Congress, notably including the famous Cold Warrior-turned-lobbyist Charlie Wilson, a Texas Democrat. According to convicted Cunningham co-conspirator Mitchell Wade, the guests sometimes included “escorts” ferried by a limousine company that won a $21 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security. The bribes from Wade provided Duke Cunningham with a luxurious houseboat moored on the Potomac River, where the San Diego congressman also threw raucous parties.
With the excesses of their Watergate and Potomac houseboat parties, it was as if Wilkes and Foggo brought with them from their modest childhoods (they played high-school football together) an almost Hollywood idea of Washington power. Meanwhile, Wilkes and Wade amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in defense and intelligence contracts. The Prospect has already reported how a Wilkes-controlled company, Archer Logistics, received a small 2003 contract from the CIA to provide bottled water to CIA personnel in Iraq with the help of Foggo. Further reporting indicates that Wilkes was in negotiations in early 2005 to receive a far larger CIA contract, worth a few hundred million dollars, to operate a covert “proprietary” airline. A source tells the Prospect that under this arrangement, “Third-party [airline] companies would be purchased, brought under the new [Wilkes] corporate umbrella, and staffed with new Agency pilots.” The deal fell apart, according to this source, after Wilkes' role in the Cunningham corruption case came to light.
In a Congress that has resisted investigation at most every turn, several powerful members of Congress now find themselves potentially subject to federal investigation. “One of the problems when investigations get going … they may not get you on what they started to [look at you] for,” a knowledgeable Hill veteran observes. “But they are likely to find things if they start digging around.”
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)