Lobbying Contract Provides Window On DC Graft

Less than a month after Representative Jerry Lewis announced his planned departure from Congress at the end of the year, the county of San Bernardino renewed its federal legislative advocacy contract with a lobbying firm that employs Lewis’ stepdaughter.
Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Partners, which was founded in 2005, is a full service government affairs firm that has experience in lobbying Congress and the executive branch.
The county of San Bernardino, like other governmental entities, utilizes advocacy services at both the federal and state level to advance the county’s legislative agenda. Beginning in 2009, the county began using the services of Potomac Partners in the aftermath of a burgeoning controversy over alleged improprieties in the county’s use of the lobbying firm of Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White for promoting its interests in the nation’s capitol and in particular with regard to Lewis.
Lewis had become the target of an FBI investigation into his legislative activity, particularly as ranking minority member and chairman of the   House Appropriations Committee and his prior chairmanship of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, favoring   Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White clients.   Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White and its clients made political donations totaling in the millions of dollars to Lewis’ campaign fund and his political action committee and had hired two former Lewis staff members, Letitia White and Jeff Shockey, each of whom earned  millions of dollars for themselves in their capacity as lobbyists, oftentimes by representing clients who received government contracts set up or approved by Lewis.   In June 2006, the FBI served subpoenas on  San Bernardino County, California State University San Bernardino and Riverside County, California, as well as the cities of Redlands, Loma Linda, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, and Highland, all of which employed Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White as their lobbying firm and had benefitted by spending earmarks engineered by Lewis.
The investigation of Lewis was closed out in 2011 and the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed no charges against him. Over the previous five years, Lewis utilized more than $2.4 million in campaign funds to pay the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in his dealings with the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice with regard to that investigation.
Three years ago, the hiring of Potomac Partners was intended to distance the county from the Lewis/. Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White controversy. But that effort fell short when it was revealed that Julia Willis-Leon is a “strategic partner” of the lobbying firm, in the words of Potomac Partners founder Richard Alcalde.
Willis-Leon, an event and wedding planner from Las Vegas, saw her fortunes brighten in 2005, when her step-father, i.e. Lewis, became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Her mother, Arlene Willis, is congressman Lewis’s second wife and his chief of staff. Willis-Leon founded the Small Biz Tech PAC and at once sought to cash in on her stepfather’s advancement. She began to take on clients, six of whom had business before the Appropriations Committee. By mid-2006, Potomac Partners, which boasts as its partners  Alcalde, Daniel Feliz and Brian Chappelle, took on Willis-Leon as a “strategic partner.”  Alcalde maintained that he was utilizing the one-time wedding planner for “advice” with regard to issues involving several clients.
Behind closed doors, some county officials have knowingly referred to the contract with Potomac Partners as an alternate means of taking care of Lewis. Officially and in public, county officials represented that all was on the up and up with regard to the Potomac Partners contract.
According to Josh Candelaria, the deputy director of governmental and legislative affairs for the county, he was not familiar with Willis-Leon, and her position with Potomac Partners had no bearing on the county’s decision to utilize that firm.
“I never heard of her,” Candelaria, said. “We went through a competitive process with 11 firms in 2009 and Potomac Partners was selected on the basis of three criteria – their knowledge of the needs of Southern California cities and San Bernardino County, their extensive expertise in policy and their track record of success.”
He said that the county worked mainly through Alcalde and Feliz in seeking to push through its legislative agenda in the nation’s capitol.
Candelaria said that the county did not abruptly shift from utilizing Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White as its lobbyist to Potomac Partners. “The firm of Smith, Dawson & Andrews was representing the county prior to Potomac,” he said.
He downplayed any suggestion that improprieties existed in the context of Lewis’ legislative efforts benefitting the county and any connections between Lewis and the lobbying firms representing the county.
“Congressman Lewis has always been a wonderful representative of the county and a great statesman,” Candelaria said.
He said that the continuation of the contract with Potomac Partners will run through January 23, 2013, which will come several weeks after Lewis leaves Congress.
In the fall, he said, the county’s federal lobbying contract will be put out to bid.
“Hopefully, in September or October we will initiate an RFP [request for proposals] process to find the best firm to advance the county’s legislative agenda in Washington D.C. The county has received policy and fiscal benefits from the legislative advocacy services provided by Potomac Partners. In 2010, Potomac Partners was instrumental in advocating for over $8 million in federal funds, benefitting county infrastructure, public safety, housing and economic recovery projects.”
Candelaria said keeping Potomac Partners as the county’s lobbyist would continue to pay dividends.
“New and persisting issues before Congress include reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, Payment In-Lieu of Taxes, the Farm Bill, Federal Aviation Administration, the Water Resources Development Act, and Health Care Reform. Dedicated and effective representation with federal administration, agencies, departments and associations is critical to ensure the advancement of the county’s legislative agenda. In coordination with the county administrative office, Potomac Partners will assist the county in developing and implementing an effective federal advocacy strategy to increase funding opportunities and influence federal law and policies as they relate to county priorities, programs and operations.”
The board of supervisors this week extended the existing arrangement with Potomac Partners for the provision of lobbying services for one year at an annual cost of $131,040.
The original three-year contract, Candelaria said, provided Potomac Partners with $144,000 per year. “In order to ensure cost-saving measures and fiscal prudence, this contract represents a 9% savings over the prior contract, from $12,000 to $10,920 per month,” Candelaria said.

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