The FBI this summer examined the personal financial records of two House Republican appropriators in ongoing probes into their earmarking activities.
The inquiries into California Reps. Jerry Lewis and Ken Calvert — made July 24 by two agents in a local FBI field office — appear to be aimed at updating records a federal agent from Riverside, Calif., first pulled more than a year earlier.
For Calvert, who sparked investigators’ interest last year by sponsoring a transportation earmark near property he owned, the recent records-gathering is the first signal in months that he is still under scrutiny.
Lewis, the Appropriations ranking member, is facing a federal investigation into his close ties to a lobbying firm now known as Innovative Federal Strategies. In an extension of the corruption probe that led to the imprisonment of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), federal prosecutors have issued subpoenas to towns and counties in Lewis’ Congressional district that have hired former aides to the lawmaker who now work as lobbyists. And last month, a California grand jury issued a subpoena for testimony and documents to a House Appropriations staffer who used to work for Lewis.
The FBI agent who pulled Lewis’ records this summer also examined those of Jeff Shockey, his deputy staff director; Arlene Willis, his wife and chief of staff in his personal office; and Letitia White, who left her post as his top staffer for Defense earmarks in 2002 to take a job at the lobbying firm under scrutiny, then known as Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton and Shockey. All three current and former aides also had their records pulled last year.
Both Lewis and Calvert have maintained their actions have been aboveboard. Aides to the lawmakers said they have not been contacted by investigators.
“They haven’t told us what they’re doing,” Lewis spokesman Jim Specht said. “It’s a mystery to me why they would need to pull these things again, but they’re public records, so certainly anybody has access to them.”
Calvert spokeswoman Rebecca Rudman said she would not speculate on what lay behind the recent records search. Federal officials in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., declined to comment.
It is not clear why local FBI agents picked up the most recent round of records. One legal expert said it is possible California agents were simply updating their files and wanted to save themselves a cross-country trip. But the local agents did not just examine the most recent records. For example, they pulled records for Lewis dating back to 2001, including four filings the FBI looked at last year, and records for Letitia White from 2001 to 2003, which were likewise examined in the original search.
Lack of funds and turnover in the offices of the U.S. attorneys in San Diego and Los Angeles have reportedly slowed the progress of the Lewis probe. Carol Lam, who had quarterbacked the Cunningham investigation as the U.S. attorney in San Diego, fell victim to a wider Justice Department purge and resigned under pressure in February. Earlier this year, a hiring freeze in Los Angeles reportedly kept about 50 prosecutor positions unfilled. The office has been increasing its staff in recent weeks, and last month Thomas O’Brien came aboard as chief prosecutor.
O’Brien has said he wants to revitalize the office. The subpoena to the former Lewis Appropriations staffer came during his first week on the job.
More new momentum for the prosecution came earlier this month, when a federal jury convicted defense contractor Brent Wilkes for his role in the bribery scheme that nabbed Cunningham. Wilkes was a client of Copeland Lowery.
Shockey, a former partner at the lobby shop, collected a controversial $2 million buyout from the firm in 2005 after he returned to Capitol Hill to work for Lewis. White, meanwhile, slashed her Congressional salary in 2002 in an apparent attempt to avoid a mandated cooling-off period when she joined Copeland Lowery the next year.
Calvert has sought to stay on offense against any allegations of wrongdoing.
His trouble started last May, when the Los Angeles Times reported that he and a partner pocketed a profit of nearly a half-million dollars in less than a year on a land deal. The report found that while he owned the land, Calvert earmarked $1.5 million for commercial development nearby and $8 million for a freeway exchange 16 miles away.
About a week later, the California FBI agent pulled Calvert’s financial disclosure forms for 2000 through 2005. Calvert never retained legal counsel, but buzz over the issue compelled GOP leaders to skip over him last year when a slot opened on the Appropriations panel.
When another Appropriations seat opened in May, Calvert launched a quiet campaign to respond to criticism within the conference and the conservative blogosphere. He secured the seat, and a week later released a letter he had received from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct greenlighting a $5.6 million earmark for a transit center in his district one-tenth of a mile from property he owns and less than a mile from four others.
In July, a local FBI agent pulled Calvert’s financial disclosure forms for 2006 and 2007. Rudman said the lawmaker welcomes the scrutiny. “As far as we know, there is no investigation. He has no problems whatsoever and any time they want to look at any publicly available documents, that’s completely fine with him.”