Drew Lewis pleads guilty to DUI charge

Posted: January 10, 2002

NORRISTOWN — Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, a one-time GOP kingmaker whose power stretched from Montgomery County to Washington, returned to the courthouse here yesterday, this time from an alcohol-rehabilitation center.

He pleaded guilty to his second drunken-driving offense and was sentenced to 30 days' to 23 months' probation.

"I believe the accident on July 23 was God giving me a wake-up call," Lewis said in a letter to the court. "One I shall never forget."

Around noon that day, Lower Salford police arrested Lewis, 70, after he overturned his Lincoln Navigator while driving down his driveway.

His first offense occurred in 1995 in Lower Salford when he was seen driving south in the northbound lane of Route 563, swerving to avoid oncoming cars.

Attorney James Maza said his client would return immediately to High Watch Farm, in Connecticut, where he has been in treatment since July. The lawyer said Lewis would determine the total length of his stay, which has already exceeded the 30-day sentence minimum, based on "his needs." Lewis also must pay a $5,000 fine and complete 40 hours of community service.

Lewis, a businessman with a touch for saving ailing companies, built a base of political power in Montgomery County, the state's largest Republican-dominated county and its wealthiest.

Although his only run for office fell short - he was the GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1974 - his backing helped ensure the success of others. He was among the two or three most powerful Republicans in Pennsylvania and one of the most powerful in the Northeast.

Lewis, who was born in Philadelphia and reared in Norristown, broke into politics in 1960 when he managed the first congressional campaign of Richard Schweiker, his boyhood friend. He turned around what had been a foundering campaign; Schweiker won.

Despite his 1974 loss to Democrat Milton Shapp, Lewis laid the foundation of a statewide political organization during the race.

GOP office-seekers began trekking over winding roads to the corner of the county where Lewis lived, Lilliput Farms, to solicit his nod. He was Gerald Ford's chief operative in Pennsylvania in the 1976 presidential campaign. He filled the same job for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reagan then appointed Lewis transportation secretary, a post he held from 1981 to 1983. He was known for keeping the airlines flying during the 1981 air-traffic controllers' strike. As secretary, he also endorsed raising the states' minimum drinking age to 21 and imposing a 48-hour jail sentence on drunken drivers.

Lewis, a self-made millionaire, left the White House to return to the corporate world. He became chief executive officer of Warner Amex Cable Communications, then joined Union Pacific. After 10 years at the top of the nation's largest railroad, he retired as chairman and chief executive officer in 1996.

In 1999, Lewis briefly entered the race for Montgomery County commissioner at the urging of local Republicans, then dropped out. Lewis said at the time that his family felt a "lesser workload would be in everyone's best interest."

Lewis told police at the accident scene in July that he had lost control of the vehicle. "I had three ounces of vodka and I'm drunk," he said, according to the affidavit of probable cause. He then pulled a one-ounce bottle of Smirnoff vodka from his pocket and handed it to police. Police measured his blood-alcohol level at higher than 0.10, the legal limit.

Yesterday, Lewis walked to and from the witness stand with a slight stoop. But once there, he spoke loudly and clearly in answering questions from Judge William T. Nicholas about his guilty plea.

"I commend you for taking responsibility for this, Mr. Lewis," Nicholas said. "It's a serious problem and you seem to be taking it seriously."

Maza, Lewis' lawyer, said that the rehab center his client is in is a working farm where patients do chores. After completing a 30-day program, Lewis has been counseling new patients and overseeing a dormitory, Maza said, as well as attending counseling sessions.

Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. said that Lewis, a former county GOP chairman, received no special treatment from his office. Indeed, Lewis' fine, Castor said, is considerably higher than the standard $300 second-offense DUI penalty. After his first offense, Lewis completed a county Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition program.

"It makes me feel badly," Castor said. "It's sad that he has this problem that has made a once very great man fall to this level."

County GOP Chairman Frank Bartle called Lewis a close friend, a "legend" in the county. "On balance, when you look at the accomplishments and the achievements of Drew, and his contributions to our region and our nation, I think this is a very small footnote in the book on Drew Lewis."

Mark Stroh's e-mail address is mstroh@phillynews.com.

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