WASHINGTON — A San Diego businessman under investigation in the bribery case of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham is a well-known GOP fundraiser whose generosity to key members of Congress came at the same time his company saw large increases in its government contracts, public records show.
Brent Wilkes, the founder of defense contractor ADCS Inc., gave more than $840,000 in contributions to 32 House members or candidates, campaign-finance records show. He flew Republican lawmakers on his private jet and hired lobbyists with close ties to those lawmakers.
Wilkes' charitable foundation, which aids sick children and military families, honored congressmen at black-tie banquets and donated to their favorite causes. Wilkes was also a "Pioneer" for President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, meaning he raised at least $100,000.
With help from two committee chairmen, ADCS got more than $90 million in government contracts since its founding in 1995, helping propel Wilkes from an obscure businessman to a millionaire prominent in Republican circles.
Neither Wilkes nor any other congressmen have been charged with crimes, and the donations and contributions are legal so long as they weren't intended to influence official actions. The links illustrate the connections between lawmakers who oversee defense spending and a contractor seeking some of that money.
Cunningham resigned Monday after pleading guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy to accept bribes. He admitted accepting $2.4 million in bribes from two defense contractors and two other businessmen in exchange for helping those companies get contracts.
Wilkes, whose home and company headquarters were searched by federal agents this year during the Cunningham investigation, wasn't named in the plea documents. The documents say "co-conspirator No. 1" spent more than $636,000 on Cunningham. Wilkes' attorney, Michael Lipman, acknowledged that his client is "co-conspirator No. 1." He declined to comment further about the case.
Contributions to chairmen
Since 1994, Wilkes and ADCS gave $40,700 in campaign contributions to Rep. Duncan Hunter, a San Diego Republican who now chairs the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter has acknowledged that he joined with Cunningham in 1999 to contact Pentagon officials who reversed a decision and gave ADCS one of its first big contracts, for nearly $10 million. Hunter's spokesman, Joe Kasper, said the congressman was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Another California Republican, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, led panels that ordered the Pentagon to continue programs that aided ADCS when Pentagon officials wanted to cut them. Lewis got $71,253 from Wilkes and his employees in donations since 1993. Wilkes gave Lewis donations and met him at various events, Lewis spokesman Jim Specht said, but "he never talked with him about a defense project."
Before becoming the Appropriations chairman this year, Lewis led the subcommittee that oversees defense spending. In the late 1990s, that panel directed the Pentagon to continue converting paper documents to computer records, the work that ADCS does. Pentagon officials had tried to end the program's funding.
The 1999 defense budget, for example, directed $45 million be spent on document conversion. Wilkes and his employees gave Lewis $7,000 in campaign contributions the day after his subcommittee's first hearing on the bill.
After the Pentagon declined to give ADCS a contract, it awarded the company a $9.8 million deal in mid-1999 after "inquiries from two members of Congress," a Defense investigation found. Hunter and Cunningham have said they asked Pentagon officials about the program.
The money went to ADCS instead of projects for the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, Air Force bases, and a parts center in Oklahoma, according to the report by the Pentagon inspector general, prompted by a request from a Defense official.
Valuable in-the-air time
Wilkes' ties to Hunter and Cunningham go beyond campaign contributions. In 2003, the businessman's foundation hosted a "Salute to Heroes" gala to give Hunter an award, just as it did for Cunningham a year earlier. The Wilkes Foundation gave $1,000 in 2003 to a charity run by two of Hunter's staffers, records show.
Wilkes also provided a jet that Cunningham and other Republicans used for more than a dozen flights to campaign fundraising events since 2001, records show.
Providing flights gives donors a chance for hours of one-on-one contact with the lawmaker they want to influence, said Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"Most other lobbyists would give up their second lung to get that kind of access," Ashdown said. "It's not always illegal, but it's definitely a strategy of influence that's unparalleled."