If this was a television series treatment, until recently there is only one person in Hollywood to whom you would have sent the outline, Aaron Spelling
. Only the man who made Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210 could have convinced an audience that this mix of unbridled power lust, tawdry sex and illegally obtained money was something more than fiction. Still the saga of convicted Republican felon Randy “Duke” Cunningham has all the aspects of a primetime soap opera. And, like all soaps, there are no good guys, just different levels of corruption. Vanity Fair
has the definitive history of the Cunningham saga.
What a cast of characters. Duke, the former war hero turned congressman. Brent and Mitchell, the unscrupulous would be tycoons. White haired Jerry and slutty Katherine, two more corrupt members of congress. Bill, the defeated congressman turned lobbyist. Dusty, the womanizing CIA agent. Damn, this thing writes itself. Take a look at the plot summary:
Cunningham is believed to have been introduced to Wilkes, now 51, in the early 90s by Congressman Bill Lowery (whose seat Cunningham would fill after Lowery and his wife were discovered to have written 300 bad checks on the House bank). Wilkes's father, like Cunningham a naval pilot, was killed in a 1959 accident while taking off from an aircraft carrier. Wilkes grew up poor, raised by his widowed mother near a San Diego naval base. At San Diego State University, he roomed with his high-school football buddy Kyle Dustin "Dusty" Foggo, and both were active in the Young Republicans, as was Lowery. After graduation, Wilkes moved to Washington, D.C., where, I am told, he accompanied groups of congressmen, including Lowery, to fly down to Central America to hang out with Dusty Foggo, by then a C.I.A. agent who was working with the contras to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Every time Wilkes was asked by Tom Casey, a California defense contractor who would eventually work with him, how he got to be so friendly with Lowery and other congressmen, the answer was always the same, Casey tells me: "Honduras." Specifically, Casey adds, Wilkes described sexual encounters between congressmen and women from Honduran villages. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports similar recollections, attributing them to three of Wilkes's former friends. (Through his attorney Nancy Luque, Wilkes denies having ever traveled to Honduras with congressmen. Lowery's lawyer, Lanny Breuer, says that when his client was a congressman he did indeed go "on a couple of trips with Wilkes to Central America." However, he adds, Lowery "absolutely denies being involved with any women with Wilkes." Foggo's attorney says that Foggo never met congressmen in Honduras.)
By the early 1990s, Wilkes had returned to California, where he was "beyond broke," recalls Casey. "He lived in a rented house and carpooled in a Chevy Cavalier." It was at this point that Wilkes began to work with Casey at Audre, Inc., a Rancho Bernardo producer of automated document-conversion systems (with defense applications). Casey, the firm's founder and C.E.O., says he paid him about $90,000 a year to market the product and to lobby Washington officials and legislators. On trips to Washington, Casey recalls, Wilkes was able to usher him into the presence of important members of the armed-services and appropriations committees, including, most notably, Lowery and Lowery's closest friend on the latter, fellow California Republican Jerry Lewis, now 71. The genteel Lewis and the earthy Lowery reportedly loved to dine and even vacation together. "Everyone on the defense committee always works cooperatively," says Casey, who realized pretty quickly that no money came his way without their support. "It was team play, and they emphasized that to me constantly."
What a two hour pilot episode this would make. Lowery, the lobbyist with the shady past. Casey, the businessman, just trying to break into the government piggy bank. Wilkes, with his his "trips" to Honduras to visit his shadowy CIA pal, Dusty Foggo. And, in the background, Cunningham and Lewis, two politicians ready to cut deals for the right price.
By the time we get to episode two, we are ready to meet some more of the players in this melodrama. The brash new hustler, Mitchell Wade. The dim witted former bimbo, who was granted a seat in congress after helping a crooked polititican steal the presidential election, Kat Harris.
In 2000, Wilkes and ADCS became "too hot to deal with," a source familiar with the situation tells me. A Pentagon official believed they had fraudulently billed $750,000 for unfinished work scanning maps of the Panama Canal Zone. (Wilkes's lawyer declares, "If there was any fraud, Wilkes was unaware of it because he was only a subcontractor and not doing the billing.") At this point, Wilkes hired "co-conspirator No. 2," Mitchell Wade, who would act for him in winning new government contracts. Wade, now 47, was a former Pentagon intelligence official with formidable contacts in the military, lavish tastes, and—most important—a profound understanding of the "black world" of classified intelligence, which Wilkes didn't know much about.
Soon, Wade developed his own relationship with Cunningham. "Mitch, I'm going to make you somebody," Cunningham promised in November 2001, after selecting $12,000 worth of antiques paid for by his new friend, and he was true to his word: Wade did become somebody. He was able to buy a $3 million house in Washington's prized Kalorama area. His company, MZM, operated out of a beautiful four-story Victorian house on Dupont Circle, packed with 19th-century partners desks and ruby-colored Oriental rugs.
wo years ago, Katherine Harris (best known as the Florida secretary of state who presided over the agonizing 2000 presidential recount, and now more obliquely known in court papers as "Rep. B") went to dinner with Wade—whom she had met through Cunningham—and subsequently got a stack of $2,000 checks for her campaign signed by his employees. Many were written on the same day. Harris would later say she had hardly any idea why—maybe they just liked her politics. (In all, Wade gave her $32,000 in illegal contributions.)
But, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Wade told Harris exactly what he wanted over the dinner, for which he paid $2,800 at Citronelle, an elegant Washington restaurant: lots of federal funding to build a $10 million counter-intelligence facility in her Florida district. They also discussed the possibility of his throwing her a fund-raiser. In vain did Ed Rollins, who was then Harris's campaign strategist, warn the congresswoman (who is not allowed to receive gifts exceeding $50) that a $2,800 dinner and a fund-raiser might be interpreted as a shady quid pro quo for snagging millions of dollars for her benefactor. "Mitch, what a special evening! The best dinner I have ever enjoyed in Washington…. Please let me know if I can ever be of assistance," a thrilled Harris wrote by hand in a letter given to me by a former MZM employee. (After insisting she had "reimbursed" the restaurant for the meal, Harris switched positions recently, saying, "I have donated to a local Florida charity $100, which will more than adequately compensate for the cost of my beverage and appetizer.") In 2005, Harris had a second dinner with Wade, for which, a friend of his tells me, he paid more than $3,300, and a few months later a Harris aide named Mona Tate Yost was hired by MZM. Although a Harris spokeswoman initially said Yost's contacts with her old congressional office were "purely on a social level," this too turned out to be false. An e-mail I have seen, written in 2005, indicates Yost had promised to approach a top Harris staffer "with a meeting." She was working on an MZM draft of a legislative-funding proposal that would, Wade hoped, underwrite his $10 million counter-intelligence facility. (Yost didn't return phone calls for comment.) An MZM employee, Kay Coles James, e-mailed the company's draft to Harris's office, which ultimately submitted it to the appropriations committee, with some of the language intact. (Possibly because Harris applied for the funding late and the request was ill-written, the money never was allocated. "I think Mitch made a mistake in trying to bribe Harris," a Capitol Hill source says, chuckling. "She's so incompetent she can't be bribed.")
This would be a heck of a soap opera. Unfortunately, its all real. From the egotistical war hero turned crook to the Young Republicans who decided that bribes got more business than honest work or useful products. Then you have the senior member of congress, Lewis, who just might turn out to be the most corrupt member of the whole bunch.
Aaron come back.