'Duke' Of Deception

Eight-term Repuiblican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, center, is escorted after making a statement outside the federal courthouse in San Diego Monday Nov. 28, 2005 where he pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud, and tax evasion for underreporting his income in 2004.
This column was written by Laura Rozen.
On its face, the corruption scandal involving California Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the former Vietnam War ace fighter pilot who pled guilty in November to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and others seeking his favors, would not seem to have the elements of a decent spy novel. As the story of a congressman for sale — a staunch Republican and former Navy "top gun" sitting on the House Intelligence and Appropriations Committees — the Duke's downfall looks like just another case of Capitol Hill corruption, albeit on an outlandish scale.

But in the Cunningham case nothing is quite what it seems. Two months have passed since he pled guilty to taking more bribes than any other legislator in U.S. history, yet no more indictments have been issued, not even against the four people described as "co-conspirators" in the Cunningham plea agreement. No other shoes have dropped — until now.

On January 6, 2006, Time magazine reported that in the days before Cunningham's plea agreement was publicly announced, he had been wearing a concealed recording device. "The identity of those with whom the San Diego congressman met while wearing the wire remains unclear, and is the source of furious — and nervous — speculation by congressional Republicans," Time wrote. To whom had Cunningham led the FBI as part of his cooperation agreement? A recent story in the Los Angeles Times cited Cunningham's attorney, K. Lee Blalack, as saying Cunningham had not recorded any other "public officials," but declined to clarify whether he had recorded others. The implication of the two reports is clear: Prosecutors have further targets in their crosshairs beyond Cunningham. In law enforcement, the standard procedure is for prosecutors to haul in the little fish first in order to net the big fish later. So there was something peculiar about the Cunningham case, where such normal logic had seemingly been turned on its head. Here the big fish — a ranking Representative — had pled guilty before the businessmen from whom he had admitted taking bribes. What the Time report suggests was that Cunningham might not be the biggest fish in this case after all.

The Cunningham case has revealed several lawmakers worthy of investigative scrutiny. Two men described but not named as co-conspirators in the original indictment — Brent Wilkes, the chairman of San Diego-based defense contractor ADCS Inc., and Mitchell J. Wade, the founder and until recently chairman and president of defense and intelligence contractor MZM Inc. — donated "more than a million dollars in the last ten years to a roster of politicians," including contributions from their employees and company political action committees (PACs), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In some instances, those donations seemed to track closely with appropriations recommendations from politicians that benefited Wilkes' and Wade's companies.

Among the pols of potential interest to investigators is Representative Tom DeLay, whose Texans for a Republican Majority fund-raising committee received a $15,000 donation in September 2002 from Perfect Wave Technologies, a subsidiary of Wilkes' corporate umbrella, the Wilkes Corporation. Through another Wilkes' subsidiary, Perfect Wave also hired a lobbying firm, Alexander Strategy Group, set up by DeLay's former Chief of Staff Ed Buckham, and which employed DeLay's wife Christine, to lobby successfully for Perfect Wave to receive a Navy contract. In December, the Austin, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle — already pursuing a campaign-finance case against DeLay — subpoenaed documents from Wilkes, Perfect Wave Technologies, ADCS, and associated companies. Popping up again on the radar as well is Congressman Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who, like DeLay, is simultaneously under investigation in the rapidly expanding Indian gaming case that has led to guilty pleas by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and PR Executive Michael Scanlon. On October 1, 2002, Ney inexplicably entered praise of a San Diego-based charity headed by Wilkes, the Tribute to Heroes Foundation, into the Congressional Record — the same kind of service Ney performed for his benefactor Abramoff on more than one occasion.

Extensive reporting published by the San Diego Union-Tribune indicates that several other Republicans in southern California's congressional delegation may have drawn the attention of investigators in the Cunningham case. Among them are Representative Duncan Hunter, identified by a Defense Department Inspector General report — along with Cunningham — as actively intervening with the Pentagon to try to award a contract to a document-conversion company that had given him tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions for a program the Pentagon did not request or consider a priority; Representative Jerry Lewis, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, on which Cunningham sat; and former Congressman-turned-lobbyist Bill Lowery.

As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in December, "Lewis has green lighted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects for clients of … Lowery. Meanwhile, Lowery, the partners at his firm, and their clients have donated 37 percent of the $1.3 million that Lewis' political action committee received in the past six years. … [Lewis and Lowery have] exchanged two key staff members, making their offices so intermingled that they seem to be extensions of each other."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Lewis has also accepted more than $60,000 in campaign contributions from Wilkes, Wade, and their companies' PACs over the years — money that he, like several other representatives and senators, announced would be donated to charity on December 6, after Cunningham's guilty plea. But in more significant ways, Lewis' reaction to the bribery revelations has been nothing short of peculiar.

There's little doubt that Cunningham, who sat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, possessed sufficient influence to steer defense contracts to those from whom he has admitted taking bribes. In repeated interviews with The American Prospect, however, the press spokesman for the Appropriations Committee has indicated that Lewis has decided to only "informally" investigate those "programmatic recommendations" made by Cunningham in the past — although Cunningham himself has admitted corrupting the program process. "There is an informal review going on," committee Spokesman John Scofield explained in December. "It's not something we had made a big announcement on."

This casual attitude contrasts starkly with the reaction of Michigan's Peter Hoekstra, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee (HPSCI), the other committee on which Cunningham sat. Hoekstra has announced a thoroughgoing investigation of any corruption of the Intelligence Committee's work that Cunningham may have perpetrated, complete with a request to the Justice Department for a nonpartisan investigator to be seconded to the committee's probe.

"The chairman [Hoekstra] is very upset by this," said Jamal Ware, a spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee. "He wants to be certain that there was no attempt to do anything wrong to his committee. He honestly believes that given the very sensitive nature of what this committee does, there has to be certainty that there was no attempt to manipulate certain processes or abuse any information."