An explosion of special interest funding engineered in part by lawmakers with close ties to lobbyists is drawing increased scrutiny as Congress moves to address concern about corruption that already has led to the conviction of a Republican House member and former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
At issue is a symbiotic relationship between lawmakers well positioned to slip special-interest projects into legislation, and wealthy lobbying groups that raise large sums of campaign funds or provide trips and other benefits to those lawmakers.
In the latest example of these backstage dealings, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) told The Washington Post that he helped steer defense funding, totaling $37 million, to a California company, whose officials and lobbyists helped raise at least $85,000 for Doolittle and his leadership political action committee from 2002 to 2005.
Brent Wilkes, a director of the company, PerfectWave Technologies LLC, and a major contributor to House Republican leaders, was identified as "Coconspirator No. 1" in criminal charges brought against Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) late last year. Cunningham pleaded guilty in November and resigned from Congress after admitting he conspired to take $2.4 million in bribes in return for using his office to help Wilkes and another defense contractor, in part by placing earmarks in defense appropriations bills.
Doolittle said in a statement this week that as one of three California Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, he frequently supports "well deserving projects throughout the state." The statement added that his support of PerfectWave Technology "was no exception and based completely on the project's merits and the written support of the military."
Joined at the hip
The link between special interests and members of Congress has grown so tight that nearly a dozen House and Senate members who control federal spending have retained lobbying veterans to raise campaign funds for them, and those lobbyists have secured lucrative favors in spending bills.
These relationships have coincided with the rapid growth in the volume of home-state pork-barrel projects, commonly called earmarks, that have swelled appropriations bills in recent years, according to congressional experts and watchdog groups.
"It's the currency of corruption," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said of appropriations earmarks.
Since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the number of home-district earmarks jumped from 4,155 valued at about $29 billion in 1994 to 14,211 worth nearly $53 billion 10 years later, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Once a backwater for boutique lobbying shops, the House and Senate Appropriations committees are fueling a lobbying boom in Washington. The hunt for earmarks has become so consuming that lawmakers are neglecting other duties, said Scott Lilly, who recently retired as chief Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee. Last year, the committee received 10,000 requests for home-district projects on one spending bill alone -- 25.4 projects per lawmaker, said committee spokesman John Scofield.
"It has become an obsession of the Congress," Lilly said. "That's all they do."
Pet projects gain favor on Hill
Traditionally, Congress has provided large pots of money to federal, state and local agencies, such as housing authorities and transportation departments, which then funded specific programs based on merit and local need. The Appropriations committees funded specific projects only when they had been vetted and approved by authorizing committees, such as the Armed Services Committee.
But increasingly, lawmakers have gone around authorizers and agency officials to finance pet projects in their home districts. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) secured $207 million for the "Prairie Parkway" through Kane and Kendall counties in Illinois in last year's major highway law, although the Illinois Department of Transportation is only two years into a five-year study of the project and has not yet determined whether a highway is needed or whether improvements to existing roads would suffice.
The hunt for earmarks on Capitol Hill and on K Street has opened up new avenues for lobbyists and lawmakers to come together. Seven members of the House Appropriations Committee -- Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), Kay Granger (R-Tex.), Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.), John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) -- have political action committees headed by registered lobbyists or former registered lobbyists with business before the committee, according to the Center for Public Integrity and campaign records.
‘It's completely out of control’
David A. Metzner, treasurer of Sweeney's Freshmen PAC, has represented the Association of American Railroads; it is a frequent petitioner of the House Appropriations subcommittee for the departments of Transportation, the Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development, on which the New York Republican sits. Leon G. Billings, DeLauro's treasurer and longtime friend, has represented groups such as the American Lung Association and the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Co. His lobbying registration for the Industry Urban Development Agency targets the Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee's bill.
In the Senate, Appropriations Committee members Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have retained PAC treasurers who have served as Appropriations lobbyists. Richard B. Ladd, treasurer of Stevens's Northern Lights PAC, has lobbied the Appropriations defense subcommittee on the behalf of defense contractors. William C. Oldaker, who heads the PACs of Reid and Dorgan, has lobbied multiple Appropriations subcommittees for the universities, science centers and municipal water districts he has represented, according to Senate lobbying records.
"It's completely out of control, and we are not going to reform a system, as far as lobbying is concerned, if we have a process that lends itself to one influential lobbyist with a relationship with one member," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters this month.
Defending the system
Chairman Lewis strongly defended his committee, saying that after years of unchecked growth, the value of home-district earmarks retreated in the spending bills for this fiscal year by nearly $3 billion. One bill, funding labor, health and education programs, was voted down by the House the first time it went to the floor, in part because Lewis stripped it of every earmark. The problem, Lewis said, is with the campaign finance system. Lobbyists, such as his friend Bill Lowery, are helping to raise money to keep Republicans in the majority, and Lewis would not apologize for that.
"If you're going to impact public policy, you have to be in the majority," he said. "I don't back off that responsibility at all. Mr. Lowery is only one piece of that, and frankly a relatively small piece of it."
In a series of articles last month, Copley News Service laid out the relationship between the two that included Lowery raising campaign funds for Lewis, the exchange of longtime staff members and the channeling of millions of dollars to Lowery's California clients.
Lowery, the partners at his firm -- Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton & White -- and their clients have donated more than a third of the $1.3 million that Lewis's political action committee has raised in the past six years. One longtime member of Lewis's staff, Jeff S. Shockey, left Capitol Hill to join Lowery's firm, then returned recently as the House Appropriations Committee's deputy staff director. Letitia H. White, a Lewis staffer for 21 years, began lobbying for Lowery in 2003.
Wilkes, the California businessman linked to the Cunningham corruption case, began tapping federal spending sources in the mid-1990s, after Cunningham helped him win at least $80 million in Pentagon earmarks for a company he ran that converted paper documents to digital images.
In mid-2002, Wilkes became involved with a new company, PerfectWave Technologies LLC. He then retained the Alexander Strategy Group, a high-powered firm operated by former aides to then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), to lobby for defense appropriations. Wilkes was seeking funding for the development of an "automated speech recognition technology."
Trail of gifts and earmarks
Shortly thereafter, individuals related to Wilkes and PerfectWave made large campaign donations to members of the GOP leadership, Doolittle and Lewis, who was then chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee. PerfectWave is housed in Wilkes's office building in Poway, Calif.
Doolittle and his leadership PAC received at least $85,000 from 2002 to 2005 from Wilkes, PerfectWave associates and their wives, and from Alexander Strategy lobbyists Edwin A. Buckham and Tony C. Rudy and their wives.
Wilkes was successful. Congress approved the first earmark for PerfectWave as part of the fiscal 2003 defense bill, which was passed in October 2002. That $1 million earmark was followed by an installment of $18 million in 2003 and another $18 million in 2004. Doolittle, whose district is in Northern California, was a guest at a fundraising dinner at Wilkes's office in San Diego in the fall of 2003.
Doolittle's office released a letter from a Marine Corps official dated last Feb. 25 that praised the PerfectWave technology. A spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee said there are no additional funds for the project in the fiscal 2006 budget because the Marines have not spent all the money that was earmarked.
Staff writers James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith and researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report