The Hawks are Circling | Rep. Lewis’s (Mis)Appropriations

The Three Day War—Ignored by the U.S. media, yet reported in the U.K., are increased concerns that the Bush administration plans to bomb Iran. On the day before Labor Day, the Sunday Times of London carried some remarks by Alexis Debat of the Nixon Center, a conservative Washington think tank that includes Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) on its board of directors. Debat said the Bush administration has drawn up plans for a three-day bombing campaign that would “take out the entire Iranian military,” rather than resort to the “pinprick” strikes the administration had previously discussed, which would be aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities.

On the same day, the Sunday Telegraph published a detailed account of war games that explored an Iranian response to a U.S. bombing campaign. The four-month war games described by Telegraphreporter Tim Shipman were conducted by the Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank housed in a large office building across Massachusetts Avenue from the Capitol. What was notable about Heritage’s war games was the participation of Bush administration officials.

Both reports were published several days after a speech in which Bush warned that “Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.” In January, the Independent reported that the Israeli government was pressuring the U.S. to eliminate Iran’s nuclear threat or prepare for unilateral Israeli attacks against Iran, similar to Israel’s bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Osirak in 1981.

Somebody Better Investigate (Soon)—When the House of Representatives reorganized under Democratic leadership in January 2007, West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan recused himself from Appropriations Committee decisions involving the Department of Justice budget. Mollahan is the subject of a DOJ investigation into tax dollars he steered to non-profit groups whose directors provided him with large campaign contributions. When Mollohan stepped aside (and also resigned from the House Ethics Committee), Washington watchdog groups, including Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), criticized Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA) for not recusing himself from DOJ appropriations decisions because he too was under investigation.

Lewis had been chairman of the House Appropriations Committee until the new Democratic majority was sworn in. As ranking minority member and a seasoned appropriator, he continues to influence committee decisions. Before the DOJ began looking at him, CREW described his close relationship with former Congressman Bill Lowery and the lobbying firm Lowery directed. While Lewis was chair of House Appropriations, he earmarked hundreds of millions of federal dollars for Lowrey’s clients. In return, Lowrey, his partners, and their spouses contributed $480,000 to Lewis’s re-election campaign and his political action committee.

The DOJ is also investigating Lewis’s role in passing 2003 legislation that aided a hedge fund that then provided $140,000 to Lewis’s PAC. The money the PAC funneled to Republican House candidates helped Lewis lock up the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee when Republicans controlled the House. Under the committee chair-vetting system put in place by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, candidates for committee chairs were judged by the amount of money they raised and distributed to fellow Republicans. As Sloan (a former federal prosecutor) saw it, Lewis might have violated federal bribery statutes.

It now turns out that Lewis’s decision to stay involved with Appropriations decisions made no difference. Funding cutbacks for U.S. Attorneys had already slowed the investigation of the transgressions that Sloan described. Funding cuts resulted in the departure of the senior investigator working on Lewis’s case, although a veteran prosecutor was recently assigned to reinvigorate the investigation. Meanwhile, Lewis has no plans to retire. On the day the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story that described the damage inadequate funding has done to DOJ investigations, he announced he will run again in 2008 for the seat he has held since 1978.

Lewis has easily won re-election in the past. But a reinvigorated investigation, and an indictment, if one is handed down, will make a strong contender of Democratic challenger Tim Price, an attorney from San Bernadino.