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Cozying Up to Power

Brent Wilkes' businesses grew along with his political ties. He is `co-conspirator No. 1' in the Cunningham case, his lawyer says. He has not been charged.

May 08, 2006|Peter Pae and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

POWAY, Calif. — Brent R. Wilkes was a small defense contractor who looked for powerful friends in high places.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor, Wilkes was one of the first to contribute to his campaign. Schwarzenegger later gave him plum appointments to boards that oversee the prestigious Del Mar racetrack, where Wilkes held court on opening day in 2004 and 2005.

On Capitol Hill, Wilkes plied lawmakers with gifts, favors and hefty campaign contributions. He leased a jet and took then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to three states on a golfing vacation. He hired expensive lobbyists close to legislators who controlled last-minute changes to the Pentagon's budget.

Over the last decade, some of Wilkes' two dozen firms in San Diego and Virginia received about $100 million in federal contracts. They were small deals by Washington standards, usually a few million dollars apiece, and they involved dull jobs -- scanning and filing documents, supplying computer storage devices or delivering bottled water to government workers overseas -- but rivals complained that Wilkes got more than his share.

Not bad for someone who grew up poor, raised by a single mother in a small, prefab home south of a San Diego Navy base.

Now investigators want to find out whether Wilkes committed any crimes in securing those government jobs.

Federal prosecutors in California, Texas and Washington are investigating political contributions by Wilkes, his associates and employees of his numerous companies, sources familiar with the investigations said. Separately, the Pentagon's inspector general is probing contracts awarded to a Wilkes company, a Pentagon source said.

Wilkes was a shrewd businessman, those who worked with him recall. Court documents, Pentagon reports and campaign finance records show that he carefully built a broad network of political contacts to enhance his chances of winning new business.

The public story about Wilkes now includes reports of his involvement with DeLay, disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, prostitutes and the No. 3 official at the CIA, who may have steered business to Wilkes. The CIA's executive director, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, has been a friend of Wilkes' since their youth. They roomed together at San Diego State University, were best men at each other's weddings and named their sons after each other.

Prosecutors are also reportedly investigating whether Wilkes and an associate paid for hotel hospitality suites in Washington and supplied prostitutes for congressmen. Wilkes' San Diego attorney, Michael Lipman, said his client "vehemently denies any involvement with prostitution."

Wilkes, 51, has not been charged with a crime. Federal prosecutors declined to comment.

But Wilkes' lawyer has confirmed that his client is "co-conspirator No. 1," who plays a prominent role in the Cunningham case.

In March, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison, the harshest penalty ever imposed on a former member of Congress in a corruption case. The San Diego Republican admitted receiving $2.4 million in bribes, gifts and favors from four co-conspirators and evading more than $1 million in taxes. They were the price of Cunningham's influence in landing lucrative defense contracts.

Cunningham admitted accepting a $100,000 bribe from co-conspirator No. 1 -- Wilkes -- and said that person helped pay off a $525,000 mortgage on his home. Prosecutors charged that Cunningham ignored a warning from a Pentagon official that $750,000 in invoices from a Wilkes firm appeared to be fraudulent.

Starting in 1996, Wilkes, his firms, employees and family members donated more than $600,000 to federal lawmakers and their political action committees, campaign finance records show. As Wilkes' businesses expanded, so did his political contributions.

Ultimately, most of Wilkes' government work came from "earmarks," a controversial step in which legislators attach extra funds to bills to cover pet projects, even if a federal agency didn't request them.

"Wilkes was brilliant. He knew how to work the system and he made the U.S. government his bottomless piggybank," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for government watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.

Wilkes and his associates made their largest federal campaign donations to House Appropriations Committee member Rep. John T. Doolittle, a Republican from Sacramento, who received $82,000. Cunningham received $76,500, and $60,000 went to Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).

Lewis said Friday that he knew Wilkes socially years ago and even took a trip with him to Guatemala. But the lawmaker insisted he never had discussions with Wilkes about federal contracts. In January, he added, he donated Wilkes' contributions to Habitat for Humanity.

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