The Favor Factory

Monday, July 31, 2006

AS ONE OF THE top appropriations staffers to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), Letitia White made a nice salary. Ms. White, who oversaw the dispensation of earmarks for Mr. Lewis, earned almost $118,000 in 2000 and nearly $125,000 in 2001. But the following year, Ms. White took a hefty pay cut: Her pay dropped to slightly over $113,000. An effort to save the taxpayers money?

Don't bet on it. The rules -- such as they are -- that require congressional staff members to wait a single year before lobbying their former committees apply only to those who earn a certain amount -- in 2002, $112,500. Even though Ms. White was a bit over that limit, her pay cut, on an annualized basis, put her $80 below the cap -- and cleared the way for her to join a lobbying firm and rake in $670,000 in lobbying fees during her first year in business. Why endure a cooling-off period when your former boss makes you a hot commodity?

Ms. White's lucrative trip through the revolving door was detailed by Paul Kane last week in Roll Call. The story reported how in March 2002, Ms. White and her husband went on a nearly $9,000, nine-day trip to Italy paid for by defense contractor General Atomics. The company received $6.1 million in two separate earmarks in the defense appropriations bill passed that year. Ms. White left the appropriations staff on Jan. 8, 2003; she joined the lobbying firm renamed Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton & White on Jan. 9. Name partner Bill Lowery is a former Republican congressman from California who is one of Mr. Lewis's closest friends. And guess who Ms. White signed up as a client on her first day? General Atomics.

The company was just one of 16 clients -- mostly defense contractors whose interests were overseen by Mr. Lewis as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee -- whom Ms. White secured that year. Those clients received about $22 million in earmarks in the next round of spending bills. That kind of success paid off: By 2004, Ms. White was reporting lobbying fees of almost $1.5 million.

In a statement to Roll Call, Mr. Lewis, who now chairs the appropriations panel, said, " 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." A spokesman for Ms. White said she consulted the House ethics committee about how to handle job negotiations and "recused herself from any official activity that involved a prospective employer or client."

This is just a piece of the increasingly disturbing picture emerging about the goings-on at the appropriations panel, which lobbyist Jack Abramoff memorably dubbed the "favor factory." We'll examine other aspects of the story in another editorial. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed a number of Copeland, Lowery clients and examined the financial disclosure forms of Mr. Lewis and his staff. Whether crimes were committed remains to be determined, but this much is clear: There's quite an odor emanating from the favor factory.

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