Jerry Lewis, Earmarking Congressman Extraordinaire, Adjourns At 86

Former Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis, who came to represent the Inland Empire at the federal level two years prior to Ronald Reagan’s election as president and solidified the GOP’s hold on San Bernardino County by mastering pork-barrel politics as well or better than any politician, Democrat or Republican, of his era, has died.
Lewis, who remained in Congress for more than three decades, had a political career which spanned 49 years. He was continually in office with only a few hours or days between his resignation from an elected position lower on the political evolutionary chain to take on a more prestigious one from his 1964 election to the San Bernardino Unified School District Board, then during his more than 19 years in the California Assembly from 1969 until 1978 and his final 34 years as a politician in the House of Representatives from January 1979 until January 2013, at which point he was, remarkably, the longest-serving House Republican in California history, up to that time.
Lewis was a master of politics who served his party, his constituents, the governments within the districts where he was congressman, himself, his family and his supporters very well. Competing in 25 elections, he lost but a single contest, a specially-held one for state senator in 1974.
While in Congress, he never received less than 61 percent of the vote in any of his elective contests.
Athletic as a youth and possessed of the startingly photogenic features of a matinee idol in his early and middle manhood, as he aged to become somewhere on the scale between the 25th and 20th most powerful man on the planet in his mature years, Lewis took on the aspect of a respected corporate administrator.
He did not let his party affiliation dissuade or prevent him from joining in with the more liberal members of his party and the Democrats to embrace what he considered to be positively transformative or progressive governmental programs, such as efforts when he was in the Assembly aimed at reducing air pollution in smog-prone Southern California.
Just as he stepped up from being an insurance salesman to a local official with the school board and then leapt to the California Legislature and less than a decade later bounded from there into the House of Representatives, once he was in Washington, D.C., Lewis adjusted quickly and went from being a freshman Congressman focused primarily on his constituents in California to a politician engaged in national and international issues. His immersion in politics and the intense power and selfishness political endeavor entails took its toll, and four of the last six years he was in office saw him and his legal team engaged in an intense and bruising grudge match in which he spent more that $2.7 million donated to him by his political supporters to ensure his reelection to instead pay one of the country’s more prestigious law firms to keep him out of prison. That legal battle involved one of the most serious legal/political scandals in U.S. history, when the law firm representing him essentially bribed the U.S. Attorney pursuing Lewis with a $1.5 million signing bonus to leave government service and join its ranks as one of its partners.
Born in Seattle, Washington on October 21, 1934, Charles Jeremy Lewis came to California while he was yet a child, and his family settled in San Bernardino. At San Bernardino High School, where he graduated in 1952, he was captain of the swim team and the top scorer on the basketball team. He matriculated at UCLA, graduating from there with a degree in government in 1956. He was thereafter, from 1956 to 1957, a fellow at the San Francisco campus of the Coro Foundation, an intensive leadership program for those interested in public affairs.
If Lewis had any inclination or ambition toward politics, he put that on hold for nearly seven years, as he immersed himself, with some success, in the insurance business. In 1964 he ran successfully for the San Bernardino City Unified School Board. Two years later, he intensified his political involvement, going to work on the staff of Congressman Jerry Pettis.
In 1968, Lewis was elected to the California Assembly, and he served on that body from 1969 until 1978.
One of Lewis’s strengths as a politician, his recognition of the importance of money in the electoral process and that without being elected one could not hold office nor accomplish anything politically, would grow, decades later, to become his Achilles’ heel. Though Lewis did not eschew, exactly, collecting small donations from everyday citizens, he learned early on that those who had a dog in the political hunt were likely to be more generous than his average constituents, and that indeed one major donor would endow his campaign coffers with ten, fifty, a hundred, even a thousand times as much money as a de minimis donor. Moreover, Lewis understood that once a politician cleared the threshold of being elected to office – and as long as he remained in office – there existed untold numbers of influence sellers and influence buyers who would line up at once, indeed were literally begging, to give him substantial amounts of money, the understanding being that when the time came and they had business to transact with the government, he was to make sure they got a fair shake. On Lewis’s desk he had two rolodexes – one with the phone numbers of lobbyists and donors and the other with the phone numbers of everyone else.
In the course of his time in the Assembly, despite the resistance of some Republicans, Lewis authored or coauthored bills that, first, created the South Coast Air Quality Management District and, second, under the administration of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, created incentives for industries using smokestacks to adopt other manufacturing processes that eliminated the burning of fossil fuel or hydrocarbon emissions; outfitted those smokestacks with so-called “scrubbers,” which reduced the pollutants being belched into the air; and then “capped” the number of smokestacks in the district to those that yet existed after this process of reduction or elimination. Those remaining smokestacks were “grandfathered in,” meaning they were allowed to continue to operate, but the companies that owned them had the option of shutting them down and obtaining so-called “air pollution credits,” measured by the ton of particulate matter the smokestacks emitted, for doing so. Those air pollution credits obtained by shutting down a smokestack could then be used by that company to allow it to begin the operation of another smokestack that, by law, had to be less polluting than the one that had been closed down. In the alternative, those air pollution credits could be traded, that is sold, to another company that needed to have a smokestack as part of its operations. Thus the “cap and trade” program was created, the goal of which was to stabilize and ultimately reduce the emission of pollution into Southern California’s atmosphere.
While Lewis, as a Republican, was heavily involved in legislation aimed at enabling the state’s businesses, he swerved from time to time into the province of advancing social welfare, as with a bill he authored setting up California’s child care system. He also ingratiated himself with a group it did not hurt for him to befriend, journalists, with the creation of the California Shield Law, which prevents a court that is involved in or is adjudicating a civil action from ordering a reporter or reporters to reveal the source of information that has been published, and further requiring that before a court involved in or adjudicating a criminal matter orders a reporter to reveal the source of information that has been published, all other means of determining the source of that information must be exhausted before the reporter is or the reporters are jailed for refusing to make that revelation.
In January 1974, Lewis competed against Democratic San Bernardino Fourth District Supervisor Ruben Ayala, who like him had been an insurance salesman before going into politics, in a special election to represent the vacant 32nd District in the California State Senate. Ayala prevailed, as the 32nd then was a Democratic stronghold, and Ayala never squandered an opportunity while on the stump to remind the crowds that the $130,000 Lewis had raised for the campaign dwarfed the $60,000 in his own campaign fund raised in $5 and $10 increments from over 900 donors, and that Lewis’s backers consisted of 22 Sacramento lobbyists and another 21 deep-pocketed local business interests.
Jerry Pettis, who was the congressman in California’s 37th Congressional District, died in an airplane accident 1975, and his widow, Shirley Neil Pettis was elected to succeed him. She was then reelected in 1976. She opted not to seek reelection in 1978, at which point Lewis ran and won election in the Republican-leaning district.
Congressional district boundaries are redrawn in time for the election following each U.S. Census. Thus, Lewis held the congressional seat representing California’s 37th Congressional District from 1979 to 1983, the 35th District from 1983 to 1993, the 40th District from 1993 until 2003 and the 41st District from 2003 until 2013.
There was no member of Congress who more typified the basic Republican ideology than Lewis. Though technically Lewis’s initial election to federal office came in 1978 when he was elected to take a place in the lower house as a member of the 96th Congress, in the early years of his tenure in federal office, he exalted in being a part of the “Reagan Revolution” that after his party’s Watergate Scandal nadir took back the presidency and the Senate in 1980. Despite his Republican bona fides, Lewis managed, somehow, to escape being seen as a stridently partisan political figure. Indeed, in 1984, 2000 and 2004 when no Democrat emerged to run against him in those years’ primaries, Lewis appealed to Democrats as a member of their own party.
Lewis possessed a keen practical political sense, recognizing which ideological battles Republicans were overmatched by the Democrats on, and he refused to squander the political capital he did possess on fighting a battle over principle he knew he and his party could not win. As such, he came to an accommodation with the Democrats readily on a number of issues, such as cap and trade when he was yet in the California Legislature. Though he did not embrace, he would nevertheless support certain social welfare programs that were anathema to his more “conservative” Republican colleagues. He voted with the majority of his Republican colleagues roughly 93 percent of the time.
Having already served in the California Assembly, upon coming to Congress in 1979, Lewis was already a master of parliamentary procedure and the mechanics of crafting legislation, inherently understanding the process of attaching riders to bills that would make them more palatable to congressional members who were in opposition to certain other elements of the same bill, thereby sometimes achieving a compromise and a consensus to obtain those bills’ passage. At once upon arrival in Washington, D.C., Lewis introduced legislation aimed at providing federal subsidization for small businesses engaged in research and development, and he finagled it so the money would be vectored to several cutting edge businesses in San Bernardino County. Nearly three years later, with Ronald Reagan ruling the roost in the nation’s capital, that bill became law. By the end of his first decade in Congress, he elevated the art of using earmarks to steer federal spending to his district to a science.
Lewis simultaneously engaged in the most outrageous form of nepotistic political patronage, marrying his congressional chief of staff, Arlene Willis, and keeping her in his office’s highest-paying position after they were man and wife.
Elected to Congress in the 1980 Reagan landslide was another Republican, Bill Lowery, representing a Republican-leaning district in San Diego County. Lowery was 13 years Lewis’s junior, but they hit it off.
Beginning in 1985, both Lowery and Lewis served together on the House Appropriations Committee.
From January 1987 until January 1989, Lewis served as the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.
From January 1989 until January 1993, Lewis was the chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Following the 1990 Census, redistricting put Congressman Lowery into a district with another Republican Congressman, Duke Cunningham, the U.S. Navy’s only pilot ace of the Vietnam War, based upon his five aerial victories against North Vietnamese MiG-21 and MiG-17 aircraft. Lowery opted not to seek reelection against a war hero, instead forming a lobbying firm. Ultimately, Lowery’s firm hired two of Lewis’s congressional staffers, Jeff Shockey and Letitia White, as front line lobbyists. Just prior to leaving Lewis’s direct employ, White had temporarily risen to the position of Lewis’s chief of staff during a time when Arlene Lewis was on an extended absence.
In January 1995, Lewis became chairman of the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies Appropriations subcommittees. He acceded to the chairmanship of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in 1999, retaining that post until 2005.
Even before he achieved the crowning achievement of his political career as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Lewis was able to use the tremendous leverage he was accruing to benefit deserving and undeserving elements of the private sector that were involved in quasi-public-private ventures or were government contractors. Virtually all of those beneficiaries of his action in this regard were or became major contributors to Lewis’s political war chest.
Among the projects that Lewis’s earmarks outright enabled, otherwise made possible or boosted were the cancer research center at Loma Linda University Medical Center and its proton beam amplifier; huge federal contracts for the nascent mapping, direction finding, spatial analytics technology and software programs then being designed and later perfected by Redlands-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, owned by Jack Dangermond, Lewis’s close friend and political supporter; the Seven Oaks Dam at the headwaters of the Santa Ana River in the San Bernardino Mountain Foothills above Highland, along with dozens of other undertakings public and private that benefited from multi-million dollar infusions of cash. Virtually all of those private sector beneficiaries of that money originating with U.S. taxpayers had provided Lewis with financial support for his political campaigns.
Lewis demonstrated a remarkable ability to “bring home the bacon,” i.e., obtain federal funding for governmental entities and institutions within his district, including San Bernardino County, Riverside County, the cities of Loma Linda, Redlands, Highland and Twentynine Palms, the Town of Yucca Valley, Loma Linda University Medical Center and California State University San Bernardino .
With the 2004 election, the Republicans captured control of the House of Representatives aswell as the Senate, and in January 2005 Lewis was made chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, making him arguably, the ninth to the 11th most powerful personage in the U.S. Government.
Indeed, it was at that point, holding powerful congressional committee assignments and assuming a greater leadership role in the Republican Party which was at the moment in ascendancy while he was surrounded by allies in key positions, when Lewis hit his lengthiest stride as a politician. As the chairman from 2005 until 2007 and the ranking minority member thereafter of the House Appropriations Committee – the lower federal legislative house’s spending committee which controls the U.S. Government’s purse strings – Lewis was able to funnel federal money virtually at will to projects of his choosing using earmarks, that is spending mandates placed into the legislation his committee sends to the remainder of the House of Representatives and which is routinely passed.
Ironically, even as he was at the apex of his political trajectory, Lewis was on the brink of falling deep into the abyss. In March of 2006, at first quietly and subtly and then with greater deliberateness and directness that became unmistakable, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, headed by U.S. Attorney Deborah Wong Yang, initiated an investigation into Congressman Lewis’s relationship with the Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White lobbying firm.
In short order, the FBI was able to trace out, either on its own or with assistance from press and media accounts and other documentation, that the Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White lobbying firm’s clients had fared extremely well in terms of being provided with federal money or federal contracts as a consequence of congressional action orchestrated by Lewis.
FBI agents, in accordance with Yang’s direction, documented a number of instances where advocacy by Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White and action by Lewis resulted in what certainly appeared to be improprieties or outright illegalities, quid pro quos in which government action and authority was for sale.
Lewis overrode the objections of generals in forcing the Pentagon to spend over $400 million on General Atomics Predator UAV after General Atomics hired Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White and then donated over $90,000 to Lewis’s campaign fund.
Lewis used earmarks to have the Pentagon and the Small Business Innovation Research Program purchase $33.22 million worth of equipment from Virginia-based Trident, a vendor of military-oriented hardware and software systems, between 2002 and 2006, in a time paralleling Trident’s owner, Nicholas Karangelen, hiring Letitia White as Trident’s lobbyist. Over a 19-month period from 2004 to 2006, Karangelen and his wife donated $72,000 to Lewis’s election fund. In June 2006, Trident, which previously had no facilities in California, opened a development center in Redlands.
Orincon, a defense contractor founded by Daniel Alspach, was struggling, with its income barely surpassing its expenses until shortly after it hired Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White in 1998. Immediately thereafter, Lewis worked earmarking magic to have the company’s gross annual sales to the U.S. Military jump from less than $10 million per year in 1998 to $52 million in 2003, at which point Lockheed Martin bought Orincon from Alspach for a reported $75 million. In addition to Orincon paying Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White $720,000 for its lobbying services between 1998 and 2003, Alspach and his employees provided one of Lewis’ political action committees with $102,000 between 1998 and 2003, and Lewis’s reelection fund with $47,000 between 2001 and 2003.
In return for the City of Redlands paying Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White $30,000 for lobbying services in 2000, Lewis earmarked more than $6 million in federal funds for the city, including paying for a regional crime mapping and analysis project, local business subsidization, improvements to the Redlands Community Center, improvements to San Timoteo Creek and funds provided for the operation of the Redlands Trolley.
In exchange for Loma Linda University Medical Center hiring Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White as its lobbyist and providing it with $440,000 in fees from 1998 to 2004, the medical center was provided with $160 million in federal funds earmarked by Lewis.
California State University San Bernardino has paid Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White at least $702,500 since 1999 to serve as its official lobbyist. In the same time, the university received $70 million in earmarked funding. Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White’s ability to ensure that the university would be the recipient of those earmarks dropped off precipitously after Lewis departed from Congress, as earmarks he directly had a hand in before 2013 account for $60 million of the $70 million in federal funding the institution of higher learning has received in the last 22 years.
The Town of Yucca Valley made a lucrative trade-off in hiring Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White as its lobbyist in 2003, paying the company at first $3,000 per month and then agreeing to up that fee to $3,500 a month in 2005. Lowery and his colleagues persuaded Lewis to earmark $4.4 million in federal funds for the town to undertake road improvements, redress flood control issues and augment town facilities with solar panels.
In 2000, Jack Dangermond hired Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White to serve as a lobbyist for his company, Environmental Systems Research Institute. In March 2001, Dangermond and his wife, Laura, bought 41 acres of land that included parts of a scenic canyon that is immediately proximate to the upscale home Jerry and Arlene Lewis owned in Redlands. The Dangermonds in September 2001 donated the canyon property to the City of Redlands with a proviso that the land remain undeveloped into perpetuity, either as open space or parkland. This arrangement benefited Lewis and his wife, as it boosted the value of their property by ensuring it would never be surrounded by dense and lower-cost development, with the prospect that because of its exclusivity and desirable location, their property will continue to escalate in value. In 2002, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Lewis, earmarked $15 million to Environmental Systems Research Institute for the provision of software to the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
In addition to Lewis’s questionable relationship with the Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White lobbying firm, in other contexts he engaged in what appeared to be acts of nepotism or some other form of violations of the public trust.
Lewis earmarked $2.75 million for the “Barracks Row” area of Capital Hill in Washington, D.C., where Lewis and his wife, who was also his chief of staff, owned a three-bedroom home valued at $943,000.
Julia Willis-Leon, the daughter of Arlene Willis and product of her first marriage, was, before her mother parlayed her position on Lewis’s staff into being his wife, a wedding planner. After her mother’s remarriage and while Lewis was a member of Congress, Willis-Leon was the director of the Small Biz Tech Political Action Committee as well as what was referred to as a “strategic partner” of the lobbying firm of Potomac Partners DC LLC, which upon Willis-Leon’s association with it picked up six clients who had contracts approved by the House Appropriations Committee.
The FBI obtained and executed search warrants for documents in the possession of dozens of Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White’s clients, including the Town of Apple Valley, the cities of Highland, Loma Linda, Redlands, the County of San Bernardino, the County of Riverside, California State University San Bernardino, Loma Linda University Medical Center, Environmental Systems Research Institute, Trident, Orincon, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin, as well as the various of offices of Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White.
With Yang and the FBI hot on their trails, Lewis and the members of Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White lawyered up. Lewis retained the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which employed former Solicitor General Ted Olson. Lewis did not use his own money to pay for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s legal services, the cost of which over time exceeded $2.7 million, but rather used money from his campaign war chest and the various political action committees he controlled to ensure he was legally represented in the face of the federal investigation.
In a masterstroke, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, aware that Yang had recently divorced and had children nearing college age, had Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Nicola T. Hanna, who knew Yang on a personal basis, approach her about becoming a partner with his law firm. When Yang was offered a $1.5 million signing bonus and the position of co-chair of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s crisis management practice and white collar defense and investigations practice divisions, she accepted, leaving as U.S. Attorney in the Los Angeles office on November 17, 2006, ten days after the November 7, 2006 election.
What had occurred was unprecedented in the confluence of American politics and jurisprudence: The legal representatives of a powerful federal elected official, with all eyes on the situation that was playing out in front of man, God and everyone else, essentially bribed the prosecutor to end her investigation hurtling toward a prosecution of their client.
In the aftermath of the shellacking Republican took in the November 2006 election, which saw the GOP lose control over both the House of Representatives and the Senate and resulted in Lewis having to surrender in January 2007 chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee, Lewis, then 72 and weary of the negative publicity the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into him and Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White was generating, began to seriously contemplate retirement.
In his home base of Redlands, Lewis was associated with a number of politicians, political activists and political operatives, virtually all of whom were dedicated Republicans. A consensus formed that Lewis would serve out the remainder of the term he was elected to in 2006, and step down in time for his anointed successor, Mike Ramos, who had been elected San Bernardino County district attorney in 2002 and was reelected without opposition in 2006, to put together a campaign team that would conduct an electoral effort which would allow Ramos to succeed him as Congressman in California’s 40th Congressional District.
Nevertheless, the U.S, Attorney’s Office, even after the departure of Yang, appeared intent on continuing with the investigation. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher once more sought to deflate that effort, this time, in April 2007, hiring Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Fuchs, who had been one of the more energetic lawyers at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles assisting Yang before she left and who was still gunning for Lewis.
In early 2008, with the investigation still going full-bore against him, Lewis decided surrendering the leverage and advantage being a member of Congress and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee represented would be unwise, and he did not leave Congress and endorse Ramos as was earlier planned. As the investigation continued for another three years thereafter, Lewis ran for reelection in 2008 and again in 2010. The $2.7 million in legal representation Lewis purchased with money from his campaign war chest and political action committees succeeded in battling the U.S. Attorney’s Office to a standstill, and he was never charged or indicted. In 2010, after Lewis had committed to seeking reelection once more, the Justice Department announced it was closing out the investigation against him. Lewis remained defiant, continuing his prolific use of earmarks, steering $100 million in federal funds to recipients, most of them in San Bernardino County, in 2010.
In 2012, having been in the clear legally for nearly a year-and-a-half after an exhausting four-year ordeal, he at last opted out of running for reelection.
For a time, Lewis remained active in Republican political circles.
In recent years, Lewis appeared to be in failing health, and he remained confined for the most part to his Redlands home. There were rumors that he had end-stage cancer.
On November 15, 2020, Redlands police were summoned to his home on a domestic disturbance/violence call. Responding officers believed Lewis’s action toward his wife was serious enough to merit arrest. The 86-year-old former congressman was handcuffed and transported to the sheriff’s department’s Central Detention Center in San Bernardino, where he was booked. Someone immediately posted bail for him, and he was released. A little more than two months ago, in May, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office chose not to file spousal abuse charges against him. Unofficially, prosecutors indicated his health and age were major considerations in that decision.
Mark Gutglueck

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