The Feds have another big lawmaker in their crosshairs, we learned
recently: prosecutors are looking into the dealings of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), chair of the House appropriations committee, a longtime Defense porkbarreler and one of the most powerful men in Congress.
Hanging like a loose thread from the tails of stories about Lewis' troubles has been the name of his longtime aide, Letitia White. First as his "gatekeeper," then as a lobbyist for some of his closest corporate friends, White's otherwise unremarkable career reveals the kind of questionable activities that have reportedly drawn the Justice Department's interest: how powerful interests became closely linked in a multi-million-dollar cornucopia of wealth for all involved. Including White.
For over two decades White worked for Lewis, and was reportedly known as his "gatekeeper." His allies were her allies. For instance, Lewis fought for a decade on behalf of San Diego contractor General Atomics, forcing the Pentagon to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on GA's Predator UAV, which the generals didn't want.
In return, General Atomics donated generously to Lewis' campaign and PAC, and hosted at least one fundraiser for Lewis -- along with "Duke" Cunningham, now in jail for corruption, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA).
Indeed, some of the sordid details of the Cunningham saga are echoed in GA's bruising Beltway tactics, particularly how defense contractors would work Cunningham over to force the Pentagon to heel. "His goal has always been to sidestep the regular procurement process," Aviation Week
reported last year of Tom Cassidy, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the GA subsidiary which makes the Predator. "'He threatens general officers with congressional action if they don't pay attention to him,'" the publication quotes an anonymous former Air Force officer saying of the man.
In 2002, General Atomics paid for White and her husband to take a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Italy, at a reported cost of nearly $8,500. It may have made an impression: White left Lewis' employ some months later, on Jan. 8, 2003, to work at the lobby shop of Lewis' old friend, Bill Lowery. (The feds are reportedly probing Lewis' ties to Lowery, his firm and his clients.) An old friend followed her: on Jan. 9, the very next day, she filed with Congress to lobby on behalf of General Atomics.
I called General Atomics for a comment for this story. A woman named Reed Philip first said she was not "in a position" to give public comment for the company; when I told her I was calling with questions regarding the federal investigation of Rep. Jerry Lewis Philip told me, "we have no comment."
Over the next three years, GA paid Whiteâs lobby firm -- Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez -- over $300,000. They weren't alone: from 2003 through 2005, the firm billed over $4.6 million to White's clients, nearly all defense contractors, according to records at politicalmoneyline.com. "People know that if you keep Letitia White happy, you keep Jerry Lewis happy," government watchdog Keith Ashdown told the Copley News Service in December.
White -- and her husband, who made a sudden career switch to defense lobbying when Lewis took over the Defense Appropriations chair â have kicked back their share to Lewis, usually giving the maximum allowable to Lewis and his PAC. So do her clients: General Atomics has given $15,000 to Lewis' campaign and PAC in recent years.
Whatâs the net result? A circle of pork: General Atomics gets hundreds of millions of dollars in business, Lewis gets hefty campaign donations, Loweryâs firm gets fat, and White pulls down megabucks. Hakuna Matata.
Is it legal? I suspect the feds are asking that right now. And they may not be the only ones: an employee of the white-shoe Washington, D.C. law firm Covington and Burling covertly pulled Whiteâs financial disclosure records last week. (Reached by phone, the employee declined to discuss the matter.) But if the fate of Hill aides in other corruption investigations are any guide, we may see White's name move from the tail of these stories to the headlines.
Late Update: An earlier version of this story identified Tom Cassidy as president of General Atomics. He is president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., a subsidiary.