- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Defense contractor Brent Wilkes hosted fancy dinner parties and chartered jets for powerful members of Congress while his company was racking up more than $100 million in government contracts.

The lawmakers who enjoyed the largess were often the same ones who approved his contracts. They included former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to accepting $2.4 million in kickbacks in the largest corruption scandal ever to strike Congress.

Mr. Wilkes goes on trial Wednesday to fight federal charges that he funneled more than $700,000 in bribes to Cunningham in the form of both cash and perks ranging from a Sea-Doo jet boat to the services of two prostitutes at a high-end Hawaiian resort.

He said he is the victim of a “vendetta.”

It will be the first criminal trial for anyone in the Cunningham case and a rare opportunity for a jury to pass judgment on one of the corruption scandals that have swept Congress in recent years.

Cunningham, a San Diego Republican who was sentenced to more than eight years in prison, helped the government prepare for trial. Prosecutors indicated in court documents that they may call Cunningham to testify.

Mr. Wilkes, 53, spurned plea bargains and was charged in February with 25 counts of conspiracy, bribery, money laundering and unlawful monetary transactions. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors have amassed hundreds of thousands of pages of bank records, phone logs and other evidence they say show Cunningham repaid Mr. Wilkes by making sure he got government work.

Mr. Wilkes is expected to argue there was no quid pro quo. He hired superstar Los Angeles trial lawyer Mark Geragos, who subpoenaed testimony from a dozen members of Congress — including former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican — who knew Mr. Wilkes or sat on committees that oversaw his contracts.

House attorneys are trying to quash the subpoenas, arguing that the Constitution protects members of Congress from being forced to disclose communications that are part of their official duties.

Even without their testimony, Mr. Wilkes’ trial may reach beyond Cunningham. As Mr. Wilkes grew his Poway-based Wilkes Corp. in the late 1990s, he was a generous campaign donor and hobnobbed with lawmakers who played key roles in defense appropriations.

Several lawmakers now are under investigation for their ties to lobbyists.

Mr. Wilkes gave about $46,000 in campaign contributions to Rep. John T. Doolittle, California Republican, a former member of the House Appropriations Committee who has acknowledged helping Mr. Wilkes win $37 million in contracts. Mr. Wilkes contributed about $60,000 to former Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, California Republican, with whom he once went scuba-diving in Belize.

Mr. Wilkes has not been implicated in those investigations, and no charges have been filed against Mr. Doolittle or Mr. Lewis.

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