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House Appropriations chairman under fire

You may not have heard of him, but Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., is one of the most powerful members of Congress, chairman of a committee that controls hundreds of billions of dollars.  NBC's Lisa Myers reports on why he finds himself under investigation.

You may not have heard of him, but Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., is one of the most powerful members of Congress, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls hundreds of billions of dollars.

Tom Casey, CEO of the now-defunct computer software company Audre Inc., has told federal investigators what he says happened in 1993 when he asked for Lewis' help in getting money for the Pentagon to test software that converted engineering documents to computer formats.

Tom Casey: I just thought, in my opinion, it pressed the boundaries of what was ethical.

In an exclusive interview, Casey tells NBC News that after he made campaign contributions to House members of both parties, Lewis informed him the Pentagon would get $14 million for the testing, and that Casey even could write the language.

Lisa Myers: You were allowed to write language for an appropriations bill yourself?

Casey: Yes, I did. That was Congressman Lewis' suggestion.

Casey says Lewis repeatedly urged him to hire a lobbyist, former U.S. Rep. Bill Lowery, Lewis' close friend, and when that didn't happen, pressed for another favor.

Casey: Congressman Lewis asked me to set up stock options for Bill Lowery in our company.

Casey says Lewis suggested he issue the stock options in Canada — in someone else's name.

Myers: Did you view it as an effort to hide what was really going on?

Casey: It was intended to conceal his participation, yes.

Lewis calls that charge "patently false." Lowery says in a statement to NBC News, "We have absolutely no knowledge of that whatsoever." Casey never issued the stock options and acknowledges he has absolutely no proof that Lewis did anything illegal. 

Myers: You went bankrupt, you have every reason to be bitter. Why should anyone believe you?

Casey: I have absolutely nothing to gain, and there is a need for reform.

Still, Lewis' relationship with Lowery is central to the expanding criminal investigation. Some of Lowery's clients have received subpoenas. And a study by the public interest group Taxpayers for Common Sense reveals that those clients have had a remarkable success rate before Lewis' committee.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to this one firm's clients," says Keith Ashdown with Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Both Lowery and Lewis deny any wrongdoing. Lewis says he has no recollection of urging that his friend be hired as a lobbyist, nor any recollection of allowing Casey to write language for a bill. A source close to the criminal investigation of Lewis confirms for NBC News that Casey laid out the same allegations to FBI and Justice Department investigators during a recent interview.

Patrick Dorton, a spokesman for the Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton and White lobbying firm, issued this statement to NBC News:

"Like many other firms, we work on routine bread-and-butter, run-of-the-mill appropriations that benefit cities and towns and hospitals and schools across the country. Our work is consistent with the laws, rules and regulations that govern Capitol Hill lobbying and is similar to work done every day, every month and every year by many in Washington."

This evening, after the NBC report aired, Congressman Lewis released the following statement:

"I have never recommended a lobbyist to any constituent, contractor or anyone seeking federal funds. I have absolutely never told anyone to provide 'stock options' or any other sort of compensation to someone who is their advisor or lobbyist. To do so would be extremely unethical, and it goes entirely against all of my principles of good governing.

"It is outrageous and false to suggest that I might have supported a program in order to provide some illicit benefit for a friend. This technology was primarily supported by the two Congressmen who represented the area, and had been endorsed by top members of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee - including the Democratic chairman. Although I was a junior minority member of the subcommittee at the time, I felt it was worthwhile to join in that support because the technology appeared to have promise.

"All of this information was provided to NBC in detail, and I am astonished that a top news organization would broadcast such unsubstantiated accusations.

"I have not been contacted by the Justice Department about any investigation. As I have said before, I have made every effort throughout my career to meet the highest ethical standards, and I am absolutely certain that any review of my work will confirm this."