Congressional receptionist cashes in, gets caught

Depending on your perspective, Letitia White is either the epitome of a Capitol Hill success story or a prime example of an unsettling mix of money, politics and public policy.

White was a receptionist when she joined the staff of Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. More than two decades later, she is an influential lobbyist whose connections to Lewis — now chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee — and others on the Hill have translated into millions of dollars for her and her firm.

They also have made her part of a federal investigation into Lewis’ ties to the lobbying firm where she works alongside former California Republican Rep. Bill Lowery, another close Lewis friend.

It’s one of a number of corruption investigations involving members of Congress that have prompted lawmakers to look again at tightening lobbying rules. Bills have passed the House and Senate, but little progress has been made in finding common ground on legislation that watchdog groups have criticized as toothless.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in the Lewis case have issued at least 10 subpoenas and are seeking details on why counties, towns and businesses in his Southern California district chose to hire Lowery’s lobbying firm, how much they paid, and what kind of communications the firm and Lewis had.

Last spring, an FBI agent on the case visited the House Legislative Resource Center to review White’s annual financial disclosure forms, according to records at the center.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which is leading the probe, declined comment. Through a spokesman, White declined an interview request and defended herself.

“Ms. White has a good relationship with chairman Lewis and other members of Congress because she has real substantive expertise on defense issues and is careful when it comes to the rules and regulations governing Capitol Hill lobbying,” spokesman Patrick Dorton said. “She has a reputation for being a smart, hardworking consultant.”

White, 48, joined Lewis’ staff as a receptionist and rose to become his top aide on defense issues. She won friends and influence through hard work, a warm personality and detailed knowledge of defense spending bills.

She left that job in January 2003 and joined Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton & White, as her firm was known until it was broken into two parts in June. She quickly acquired a stable of defense contractors as clients and began to lobby Lewis, then chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee. She and her clients also donated tens of thousands of dollars to him.

During the year prior to her departure from Lewis’ office, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported, her income dropped by around $11,000, to just $80 below the $112,500 salary ceiling that would have triggered an automatic one-year ban on her lobbying of Lewis.

The top-secret Defense Department security clearance she’d gotten while on the Hill added to White’s value for some potential clients, and her new firm mentioned it in solicitation materials.

“If I worked for a defense company, the first person I’d hire is Letitia White. She’s very, very effective,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “No one is closer to Jerry Lewis.”

But Ashdown said some of White’s actions amount to “taking advantage of the gray areas of our ethics rules.”

The day after leaving the Hill, on Jan. 9, 2003, White signed up a major client, General Atomics, along with one of its aeronautics subsidiaries. The companies received several multimillion-dollar earmarks that year in the defense spending bill for the 2004 fiscal year, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, including $3 million for General Atomics to provide anti-terror systems at Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty, and $15.3 million for the aeronautics division to develop unmanned aerial vehicles.

Earmarks are funding inserted into legislation that often get little or no review. Prosecutors are scrutinizing Lewis’ earmarks as part of the federal probe.

By the end of 2003, White had signed up about 15 more clients, mostly defense contractors, and was bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees. Her clients were enjoying similar success to General Atomics in getting earmarks. White, her husband lobbyist Richard White, and her firm’s clients were donating generously to Lewis’ fundraising committees.

During the 2004 election cycle, officials with General Atomics were the second-highest donors to Lewis’ campaign committee, giving $18,000; another White client, Isothermal System Research, was third-highest, giving $14,000; and officials with Copeland, Lowery were fourth-highest, giving $13,250, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Tens of thousands more was donated to the political action committee Lewis used to spread campaign cash to other lawmakers as he gunned for the Appropriations Committee chairmanship.

Dorton said White consulted with the House Ethics Committee over the circumstances of her departure from the Hill, and that her salary cut in her final year was mostly because she didn’t get a bonus.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the pay cut “was completely intended to allow that woman to make a fortune the minute she walked off the job.”

White co-owns a Capitol Hill townhouse with the head of one of her client companies, Trident Systems Inc. Trident’s founder, Nick Karangelen, is chairman of a political action committee called Small Biz Tech PAC that has employed Lewis’ stepdaughter, Julia Willis-Leon, for fundraising. White and her husband have both donated to the PAC.

White’s defenders say they don’t believe she would do anything illegal or unethical. While working for Lewis, she never expected a free meal, unlike many Hill staffers, they said.

“It’s one of the reasons that all of us enjoyed working with Letitia. We just had high respect and regard for how she did her business,” said Mike Matton, a defense consultant and former legislative affairs official at Boeing.

“And I’m kind of sad to see all of this in the press because there’s been nothing illegal that I know of that’s been reported, but just the perception in the eye of the beholder outside the Beltway, people who don’t understand the lobbying business.”

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press