Fate Uncertain for Other Players in Cunningham Case
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Last week San Diego Congressman Duke Cunningham tearfully resigned from office after admitting he took nearly $2 1/2 million in bribes from defense contractors. The Republican lawmaker faces up to 10 years in prison, but the contractors have yet to be charged. That may be because prosecutors are looking at other members of Congress as well. NPR's Scott Horsley has this report on the men behind the gifts to Cunningham and what they got in return.
SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
Brent Wilkes is a high roller in California business and politics, appointed to state board by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a high-level fund-raiser for President Bush. So it's surprising that in the early 1990s, Wilkes could hardly get from one paycheck to the next, according to the man he was working for then, Tom Casey. In 1992, Casey had a fledgling defense business of his own, converting paper maps and military blueprints into digital files. He'd gotten a few government contracts, but it was slow going, so he hired Wilkes to help drum up support for the project on Capitol Hill.
Mr. TOM CASEY: The real fact of the matter is you have to do something to assist a congressman or a senator to be able to have them say, `OK, I'll take five minutes and I'll listen to you,' and since he had that base of experience and that familiarity, it made sense to hire him.
HORSLEY: For two years, Wilkes' partnership with Casey worked well. Wilkes made appointments with lawmakers, and Casey talked up his document conversion system. But Casey eventually tired of writing endless checks for congressional campaigns and he balked at sponsoring the hospitality suite where Wilkes would entertain lawmakers with liquor, cigars and other favors. Casey said the two men parted company in 1994.
Mr. CASEY: He had a different view of the world and a much more cynical view of the world and, in some cases, I guess, a much more realistic view of the world. He took his own belief system and put his money where his mouth was, and maybe he put his money where it shouldn't have gone.
HORSLEY: Soon after the two split up, Casey's defense contracts dried up, but Wilkes went on to offer the same services through his own company, ADCS, and it thrived. One reason was Congressman Duke Cunningham. In his plea agreement, Cunningham said he steered government business to Wilkes in return for more than $600,000 in bribes.
Mr. KEITH ASHDOWN (Taxpayers for Common Sense): The number one water carrier for ADCS in the Congress was Duke Cunningham.
HORSLEY: Keith Ashdown is with the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Mr. ASHDOWN: You know, partly it's the role of helping a local company, but also we now learn he was getting money on the side.
HORSLEY: According to an inspector general's report, the Pentagon had a priority list for document conversion projects. But when it came time to issue the checks, four priority projects were dropped and three others substituted. All three substitute projects went to contracts in Cunningham's hometown of San Diego. The largest issued after calls from two congressional offices when to Wilkes' company, ADCS. According to a government database, ADCS ultimately won more than $85 million in government business.
Mr. ASHDOWN: You definitely can live sort of a champagne and caviar lifestyle by the little bit of money that ADCS has been getting from the federal government over the last 10 years.
HORSLEY: Wilkes, his family, employees and his political action committee spread that money around, making more than $700,000 worth of legitimate campaign contribution to lawmakers over the last decade. Those include more than $20,000 apiece to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter and Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis. Like all committee chairmen in Congress, Hunter and Lewis are Republicans.
Wilkes' headquarters building here in San Diego houses not only his defense firm but half a dozen sister companies, including one that's used a private jet to ferry Cunningham and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to political functions. Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics says that kind of travel arrangement is perfectly legal and also a perfect opportunity to curry favor with politicians.
Mr. LARRY NOBLE (Center for Responsive Politics): And there you have him up at 30,000 feet, you have free liquor, great food on these private jets, and it's a good time to talk about what your company wants in terms of defense contracts, in terms of your legislative agenda, and that's why they do it.
HORSLEY: Five years ago, Wilkes hired a consultant named Mitchell Wade, whose own company, MZM, specialized in supplying people with security clearance for classified assignments. The following year, prosecutors say, Wade began paying his own bribes to Cunningham, and watchdog Ashdown said MZM began receiving its own government contracts. Those eventually totaled more than $183 million.
Mr. ASHDOWN: When you look at the evidence, you're able to tell that Mitch Wade learned the art of bribing a congressman when he was at ADCS and he took it to levels we've never seen before when he went to MZM.
HORSLEY: Wade's attorney declined to comment. Wilkes' attorney didn't return calls for comment. So far neither man's been charged with a crime, but US attorney Carol Lam says they're part of an ongoing investigation.
Other lawmakers may also face scrutiny. After all, according to that inspector general's report, not one but two members of Congress intervened with the Pentagon on behalf of Wilkes' company. Some lawmakers who received campaign contributions have been unloaded them; in some cases, donated the money to charity. Those include Hunter, Lewis and Alan Mollohan, a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
As for Wilkes' old employer, Tom Casey, his defense company went bankrupt, but at least, Casey says, his conscience is clear.
Mr. CASEY: It appears that there were very few winners, and even those that thought they were winning playing the game in a very hardball sense and in a very cynical sense I guess may be at the end of this whole legal process will find out that they may have lost more than anybody.
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.
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