Cunningham helped contractors get tens of millions in favorable earmarks

Tuesday, October 17th 2006, 9:40 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham parlayed his seat on the House Intelligence Committee into at least $70 million in business for two contractors who in turn paid him millions in bribes, an investigator hired by the panel has concluded.

The investigator's report, released Tuesday by the committee's top Democrat, found that Cunningham had exploited weaknesses in the system for monitoring secret federal spending.

It said that he and at least one associate secured the cooperation -- or at least the acquiescence -- of many people. They included members of Congress and their aides who handled bills that directed money to certain programs, Pentagon officials who awarded
the contracts and officials at agencies where the contract work was done.

"This was a lot of people to persuade, cajole, deceive, pressure, intimidate, bribe or otherwise influence to do what they wanted," the report's executive summary says.

In a sign of partisan divisions on the committee, California Rep. Jane Harman, its top Democrat, unilaterally released the five-page document after months of disagreement with the committee's chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. Together, the two had initiated the investigation, led by special counsel Michael Stern, and had hoped to release the findings jointly.

Harman said the committee must examine why "red flags" did not trigger greater scrutiny of Cunningham's activities, and she added that she and Hoekstra had worked on internal changes that must be made permanent. "The goal should be to make certain that no Cunningham of either party should be able to soil our committee again," Harman said in an interview.

Hoekstra said Cunningham's efforts to enrich himself are "reprehensible" and Harman's decision to release an internal committee document "is disturbing and beyond the pale." Her action "underscores her personal decision to politicize the committee and this critical inquiry," he said.

Now serving a sentence of more than eight years, Cunningham pleaded guilty in November to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes from alleged coconspirators -- government contractors Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes.

Wade, former president of MZM Inc., has also pleaded guilty to lavishing Cunningham with a yacht, cash, cars, antiques and meals over four years. Wilkes, who has not been charged, was the founder of San Diego-based ADCS Inc.

Cunningham's attorney, Lee Blalack, and Wade's attorney, Reginald Brown, both declined to comment on the report. Blalack said the committee has not provided him a copy of the document, and Brown said he and his client weren't contacted for the investigation.

Wilkes' attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.

The House Intelligence Committee is charged with laying out intelligence spending priorities in an annual authorization bill, based on requests from lawmakers and government agencies. It then falls to the House Appropriations Committee, where Cunningham was also a member, to approve the spending.

Intelligence authorization bills are often quite broad, but some members are skilled at steering money to certain businesses.

The investigators found the committee authorized $70 million to $80 million in funding over five years that had been requested by Cunningham on behalf of Wilkes and Wade. When the legislation did not specify that the money go to companies associated with the two contractors, Cunningham still found ways to steer the funds by making his views known or using narrowly tailored language.

In one case spanning three years, Cunningham got the committee to direct to MZM a contract with a Pentagon unit called Counterintelligence Field Activity, despite aides' worries that it was a "pork barrel project and a waste of taxpayer money," the report says.

The investigators found that the committee's ability to conduct oversight of the work "appears to have been seriously impeded by the corrupt conspiracy between Cunningham and Wade."

The executive summary also acknowledges questions that remain unanswered:

-- Stern's request to interview Cunningham has never been fulfilled. Harman and Hoekstra wanted to subpoena him, but Hoekstra didn't want to issue a subpoena only to have Cunningham invoke his Fifth Amendment protections, as his attorney has warned he would do. Hoekstra said discussions are continuing about Cunningham's testimony.

-- Stern said "significant information" has remained out of reach. The House Appropriations Committee did not respond to requests to interview some of its staff, and follow-up requests to the Pentagon regarding some of its contracts have not been met.

-- The report sees a need for law enforcement and national security agencies to examine Cunningham's dealings with foreigners. "While our review has not identified any national security breaches resulting from the Cunningham conspiracy, we are aware of dealings that that Cunningham had with certain foreign nationals," it said.

One congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the full report has yet to be released, said Stern was particularly interested in two trips Cunningham made to Saudi Arabia in 2004.

The investigations into Cunningham, Wade and Wilkes have included a number of figures whose alleged roles are only slowly coming into focus. They include the former No. 3 official at the CIA, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who retired this year under a cloud. Five federal agencies are looking into whether he used his position to improperly award classified CIA contracts to Wilkes, a close friend, and to others.

The report says more investigation is needed into Foggo's dealings with the intelligence panel, given his close relationship with former committee aide Brant Bassett. The investigator highlighted a June 2003 dinner with Bassett, Foggo, Wilkes and an unnamed individual at a Capitol Hill steakhouse.

The report said the unnamed individual managed a company that is involved in the investigation into whether Foggo abused his position. Through CIA spokespeople, Foggo has denied wrongdoing.

Foggo and Bassett tried to motivate other committee aides with "gifts of government trinkets such as carpets emblazoned with the words 'Global War on Terror,"' the report said. "At this stage, it is unclear whether these actions violated any law or regulation, but further inquiry is appropriate."