Congressional Earmarks: Revealing Who Really Benefits
By Jerry Kammer
Marcus Stern’s explosive story about a defense contractor’s purchase of Duke Cunningham’s home at a grossly inflated price propelled us, in the Copley News Bureau, into a series of investigative stories showing that Cunningham’s corruption, while outrageous, was not truly extraordinary. During the next several months, our reporting unearthed a permissive Capitol Hill culture that unites congressmen, contractors and lobbyists in a sleazy loop of influence buying and selling.
One of that culture’s most prominent features is the earmark, a line item inserted into a spending bill, often with little or no oversight. Earmarks have been around for a long time, and many serve legitimate public purposes. But they didn’t proliferate nor become an open invitation to fraud until the 1990’s, when members of Congress fully recognized their power to raise money and fuel an incumbency protection machine.
Earmarks in defense bills became the currency of Cunningham’s corruption. They were his side of a quid pro quo arrangement that brought him a mansion, Rolls Royce, luxury vacations, a series of boats, and the prostitutes, who last year wrapped up prosecutors’ bribery case against one of Cunningham’s vividly decadent bribing benefactors.
During the past decade, earmarks became central to the legalized bribery of the campaign finance system. In many ways, it is an astonishingly permissive system; it serves sponsors of congressional earmarks by ensuring that their campaign coffers are filled by grateful lobbyists as it responds to the requests of the recipients with largesse. By giving members a personal stake in spending bills, it also helps assure passage. No matter how much wasteful spending the bill contains, a “yes” vote is assured. Earmarks also consume enormous amounts of staff time that could be directed to more legitimate needs.
To peer into this world of influence and affluence, I focused a lot of my reporting on Bill Lowery, a former San Diego congressman and member of the appropriations committee. Lowery, a cynical man who, according to friends, despises the press and wryly notes that his job is guaranteed by the citizen’s right to petition on the Congress, refused to talk.
Lowery had retired from Congress in 1990 after news accounts about his close ties to one of the more corrupt figures in the national savings and loan scandal. As a member of the House Banking Committee, Lowery had enthusiastically supported the S&L deregulation that facilitated that multibillion-dollar plundering of federally insured institutions. After leaving Congress, he immediately became a lobbyist, following the path from Capitol Hill to K Street that has become routine among retiring public servants lured by the financial charms of service to special interests.
Lowery specialized in getting earmarks inserted into spending bills supervised by his close friend from the desert east of Los Angeles, Rep. Jerry Lewis. By 1999, when Lewis became chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, Lowery’s satisfied clients were paying him millions of dollars every year. One of his first clients was Brent Wilkes, a former accountant and someone who saw how easily the system could be prostituted. Wilkes bought Cunningham, hired Lowery, contributed liberally to a host of key appropriators, and began getting multimillion dollar earmarks stuffed into spending bills to pay for his services converting government documents into digital format.
My reporting drew on three principal sources of records:
Lowery’s lobbying disclosure forms revealed his clients and the fees he charged them.
The conference reports of spending bills helped us compile a partial list of the earmarks these clients received.
Campaign finance records assembled by the Center for Public Integrity allowed us to tally the contribution checks to political campaigns that were written by Lowery, his associates, and clients.
The most interesting pattern that emerged involved Lewis’s 1999 to 2005 chairmanship of the defense appropriations subcommittee. While Lewis green-lighted hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for Wilkes and other Lowery clients, Lowery directed a fundraising machine pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Lewis’s campaign coffers.
Lewis didn’t need the money to defend his reliably Republican seat. But in 2004, these funds allowed him to write checks for $650,000 in “excess campaign funds” to the Republican war chest to fund vulnerable incumbents. In this case, money spent on other party members’ races purchased Lewis the best seat at the table. A few months later, Republican leadership awarded him the coveted chairmanship of the full appropriations committee. He called the honor “the highlight of my career.”
Records Reveal, Sources Confirm
Our reporting also revealed a lot about Lewis and Lowery’s exchange of key staff members. We observed that their offices had become “so intermingled that they seem to be extensions of each other.” Two Lewis staffers who had shepherded earmarks into bills for Lowery later joined his lobbying firm, where they earned millions of dollars and became frequent contributors to their former boss.
While I relied heavily on public records, I received valuable help from several human sources. A few Capitol Hill insiders helped us to flesh out the Lowery-Lewis relationship with details about their patronage of Capitol Hill restaurants and Lewis’s role as the best man in Lowery’s second wedding. Having this personal testimony about him added to what I’d gleaned from court records of his two divorces.
Few members of congressional staffs were willing to talk with me for this story, either on or off the record. I received important help, however, from a few former staffers, especially Nathan Facey, who helped me understand the mechanics and the appropriations culture. Facey was disillusioned by his service on Capitol Hill, especially the punch-your-ticket-and-cash-in mentality of congressional staffers who view public service as vocational school for K Street. The opportunistic virus of Lowery’s cynicism has spread its infection across Capitol Hill.
One of our more valuable sources was Keith Ashdown, the burly and brilliant earmarks’ watchdog at Taxpayers for Common Sense. Ashdown has no equal in the forensic science of tracking earmarks that lobbyists and congressional staffers try to bury like dog bones. It was news coverage of the Cunningham scandal, he says, that made the corruption of earmarks comprehensible to the general public.“Before Cunningham, it was more of a budget wonk thing, it wasn’t anything that grabbed you by the throat and made you pay attention,” he told us during additional reporting we did for the book we wrote about the scandal. “A lot of people thought that earmarking was just something that congressmen are supposed to do.”
The Lewis-Lowery relationship is being probed by federal criminal investigators, who confront the challenge of determining just how far the influence trading can go before it crosses the legal line. Whether or not it is criminal, there is vivid evidence—revealed in the Cunningham saga, the Lewis-Lowery relationship, and the extensive coverage of Jack Abramoff’s schemes—that Congress now often practices governance not envisioned by President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. What we have is government of the lobbyist, by the earmark, for the campaign cash—and the occasional, more explicit bribe of the sort preferred by Randy “Duke” Cunningham.