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Jerry Lewis, Master of the Congressional Earmark, Dies at 86

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Jerry Lewis, a powerful House Republican whose largess to his district in California established him as a master of the earmark but led to an investigation of his actions by the Justice Department, died on July 15 at his home in Redlands, Calif. He was 86.

His son Dan confirmed the death but said he did not know the cause.

Mr. Lewiswas elected in 1978 and served 17 terms in the House. A conservative who preferred working with Democrats to confrontational politics, he was a major fund-raiser for Republican candidates; his party’s third-ranking member, as conference chairman; and, briefly, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“He represented a style of politics that no longer dominates the party,” John H. Pitney Jr., an aide of Mr. Lewis’s in the mid-1980s who is now a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, said by phone. “He was very much an ally of Bob Michel” — the former House minority leader from Illinois — “and never a favorite of the Gingrich faction, which took him down from the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference” in 1992. (Newt Gingrich, then the House minority whip and later the speaker, supported the successful candidacy of Dick Armey of Texas over Mr. Lewis.)

Mr. Lewis was best known for sending enormous sums of money back to his district through the use of earmarks, provisions in congressional spending bills that direct funds to a specific recipient. He sent tens of millions of dollars to educational, medical and research institutions, military installations, a dam on the Santa Ana River, extensive tree clearing in the San Bernardino National Forest and other projects in his Southern California district.

In 2005, when he became chairman of the Appropriations Committee — after six years as chairman of its defense subcommittee — he told The Press-Enterprise of Riverside about his ambition for his district.

“My goal as chairman is not just to create a huge funnel to San Bernardino and Riverside counties,” he said. “But I have a feeling we will in California manage to get our share.”

But in 2006, the Justice Department began an investigation into whether Mr. Lewis had improperly steered millions of dollars in earmarks to clients of a lobbyist, Bill Lowery, a former Republican congressman from California and an old friend. Some of the clients donated to Mr. Lewis’s re-election campaign.

Subpoenas were issued seeking details about how communities and businesses in Mr. Lewis’s district chose to hire Mr. Lowery’s firm, how much they paid, and the nature of communications between the firm and Mr. Lewis.

Four years later, the Justice Department dropped the investigation.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that had been critical of Mr. Lewis’s ties to Mr. Lowery, condemned the Justice Department’s decision.

“Exactly what will a politician have to do for the Department of Justice to sit up and take notice?” Melanie Sloan, then the group’s executive director, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Looking back on the investigation in 2012, shortly before he retired from the House, Mr. Lewis told the Southern California public radio station KPCC, “It’ll always be there, and the reality is that we have attempted to be a positive impact in public service.”

Charles Jeremy Lewis was born on Oct. 21, 1934, in Seattle and moved with his family to San Bernardino, Calif., as a child. His father, Edward, was a civil engineer who worked on the construction of New Deal projects. His mother, Ruth, was a homemaker.

After studying veterinary science at the University of California, Berkeley, he transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science.

After working in the insurance business, Mr. Lewis served on the San Bernardino Board of Education and then was elected to the California State Assembly. He served there for a decade. During his tenure, he pushed for voter approval to make a reporter shield law — to protect the confidentiality of sources — an amendment to the state constitution and wrote legislation that established an air pollution control agency in Southern California.

Once elected to the House, he was named to the Appropriations Committee in his second term and became chairman of the subcommittee that funds the Department of Veterans Affairs, NASA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Four years later he took over the defense subcommittee. His two years as Appropriations Committee chairman ended in 2007, after Democrats won the House majority.

In addition to his son Dan, Mr. Lewis is survived by his wife, Arlene (Willis) Lewis; a daughter, Jenifer Engler; two other sons, Jerry Jr., and Jeff; a stepdaughter, Julie Willis Leon; two stepsons, Jimmy and Marty Willis; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and two brothers, Ray and John. His marriage to Sally Lord ended in divorce.

Having the same name as a famous comedian was something that trailed Mr. Lewis throughout his career.

“He had a good sense of humor” about it, Dan Lewis said. He recalled his father campaigning at a parade in Apple Valley, Calif., where people were eager to see the funnyman, not the lawmaker. The crowd might have been disappointed, he said, but the congressman “wasn’t annoyed.”

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