WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee plans to investigate whether former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who pleaded guilty this week to bribery and tax evasion, abused his position on the panel to steer contracts to favored companies, the committee's chairman said Wednesday.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said the committee would examine whether Cunningham had influenced spending on classified programs to benefit companies that offered him bribes, as well as whether he had used his access to classified information to give such companies an advantage.
"He's pleaded guilty to some very, very serious charges," Hoekstra said in a telephone interview. "At this point, he no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. We now need to look at worst-case scenarios."
The inquiry by the panel opens a new front in the effort to determine the scope of Cunningham's influence-peddling, which already ranks among the most brazen crimes in recent congressional history.
The 63-year-old Republican from Rancho Santa Fe, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former "Top Gun" pilot, pleaded guilty Monday to taking $2.4 million in bribes and evading more than $1 million in taxes. He also announced that he was resigning his House seat representing an affluent district in San Diego County.
The primary focus of an ongoing federal investigation has been whether Cunningham used his position on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, which sets funding priorities for the Pentagon, to help several companies in the San Diego area win millions of dollars in contracts.
Cunningham's membership on the Intelligence Committee -- which sets the broad spending priorities for the nation's 15 spy agencies and oversees their clandestine activities around the world -- has come under less scrutiny.
He was named to the committee in 2001 and more recently served as chairman of its subcommittee on terrorism, human intelligence, analysis and counterintelligence. As a result, he had access to information on a vast array of classified programs that receive about $40 billion in funding each year.
Cunningham's district is home to a number of defense contractors and other companies that do classified intelligence-related work. Shortly after joining the committee in 2001, he wrote to executives at a dozen companies in his district, promoting his new position.
"I feel fortunate to represent the nation's top technological talent in the 'black' world," Cunningham wrote, referring to classified programs whose budgets are not publicly disclosed.
The Feb. 8, 2001, letter went on to say that he "appreciated the opportunity to work with you on key service funding priorities" and that his new position would lead to "even greater opportunities to work together in support of our national security and intelligence communities."
Harmony Allen, Cunningham's chief of staff, described the letter as an invitation to a town-hall-style discussion that the former congressman routinely held with leaders of various business sectors in his district.
Among the recipients of the letter was Brent Wilkes, the founder of ADCS Inc., based in Poway. Investigators have scrutinized Wilkes' dealings with Cunningham, and he has been identified by sources as an unnamed conspirator mentioned in court filings.
Michael Lipman, a San Diego lawyer who represents both Wilkes and ADCS, declined to say whether the company had contracts with intelligence agencies.
A Washington defense contractor that has been linked to the investigation, MZM Inc., has done counterintelligence work for the Pentagon, according to a congressional source.
Hoekstra said he had seen no specific evidence that Cunningham had exploited his Intelligence Committee position in committing his crimes. However, Hoekstra said, "The charges that he's pled guilty to are ugly, and they are about as ugly as you can get for somebody on the Intelligence Committee with access to secret information."
The move by Hoekstra is part of a broader effort by Republicans to protect themselves from political fallout from Cunningham's guilty plea.
Democrats have seized on the case, describing it as the latest example of lapsed ethics among the Republicans who control Congress.
However, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman of Venice, declined through a spokesman to comment on the pending investigation.
Current and former Intelligence Committee aides said the investigation probably would focus on whether Cunningham sought to influence either expenditures on specific programs or officials in spy agencies who are in a position to award lucrative contracts.
"I would look at any phone calls or letters or contact between Cunningham's office and the CIA contracting officer [or officials at other spy agencies] to see whether there was inappropriate influence," said one former senior House Intelligence Committee aide.
Members of the Intelligence Committee cannot allocate funds to specific programs, as members of the Appropriations Committee can. "But in terms of fighting for or not fighting for projects, there certainly is that opportunity, and there's always an opportunity for horse-trading with the Appropriations Committee," the former aide said.
An aide to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said an inquiry into Cunningham probably would also scrutinize any letters he submitted to the House panel endorsing specific programs, along with any conversations with ranking members or senior staffers about such programs.
Cunningham's access to committee staff and classified information was terminated Monday, immediately after his guilty plea, a committee aide said. As of Wednesday, the committee had not yet received an official letter of resignation.
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.