By Josephine Hearn - 11/30/05 12:00 AM EST
In the wake of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) stunning resignation and tearful admission that he had accepted some $2.4 million in bribes Monday, many of his former colleagues are mulling what to do with tens of thousands of dollars they received in campaign contributions from Cunningham’s co-conspirators.
Cunningham, a former Navy pilot and eight-term lawmaker from the San Diego area, announced his resignation shortly after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges and tax evasion stemming from millions of dollars in bribes he accepted from defense contractors over five years.
In a plea agreement with prosecutors, Cunningham named four people who had conspired with him to commit the crimes. Although the plea agreement does not refer to the co-conspirators by name, they are widely believed to be Mitchell Wade, the former president of defense intelligence firm MZM Inc., Brent Wilkes, president of defense contractor ADCS Inc., Tom Kontogiannis, a New York real-estate developer, and an unnamed family member of Kontogiannis.
Wade and Wilkes gave heavily to congressional Republicans in recent years, and now lawmakers must decide whether to keep the campaign largesse.
Wade, Wilkes, Kontogiannis and others remain under investigation, according to a statement made by the lead federal prosecutor in the case, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam.
Congressional ethics experts predict that one or more of the co-conspirators would be charged, especially because Cunningham has agreed to continue to cooperate with the investigation.
“Given that they were both described as co-conspirators in the plea agreement and that the agreement calls for former Rep. Cunningham to cooperate in the investigation, it’s very likely that both Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes will be indicted,” said Brett Kappel, an ethics lawyer at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP.
Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) has returned money from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the center of another congressional ethics scandal, while Republican Reps. Jeb Bradley (N.H.), Kenny Hulshof (Mo.), Heather Wilson (N.M.) and Steve LaTourette (Ohio) gave back contributions from DeLay after he was indicted in September.
Republican Reps. Tom DeLay (Texas), John Doolittle (Calif.) and Jerry Lewis (Calif.) all received at least $30,000 in donations — either through their campaign committee or their leadership PACs — from Wade, Wilkes, their family members and their companies’ PACs over the past four years. These totals do not include individual contributions from employees of these firms. Early this year, Lewis became the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Before that, he headed the defense appropriations subcommittee. Because of these high-profile roles, Lewis often receives more donations than most House members. Doolittle also sits on the Appropriations Committee.
But Cunningham, who was simply a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, received the most — at least $66,000 during the same period.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, received just over $28,000, as did Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.). Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) was the recipient of $20,000.
Wilkes is a prominent Bush fundraiser, earning a designation as a “Bush pioneer” in 2004 for raising more than $100,000. If Wilkes is indicted, he will be the third Bush pioneer, after Abramoff and Ohio fundraiser Tom Noe, to be indicted this year.
Wade resigned from MZM earlier this year. The company was sold to a private equity firm in August.
In light of the Cunningham’s recent revelations, congressional watchdogs suggested that lawmakers would be wise to get rid of the donations, either by refunding them or donating them to charity.
“It would be very, very appropriate, especially in a scandal that reeks like Cunningham’s, that anyone who was touched in any way give the money to charity,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “There is no mandate that officeholders give back money even if the donor is indicted … but they should do it if they want to stand on strong ethical footing with the Cunningham scandal, where there is ample appearance of corruption.”
None of the lawmakers’ offices contacted by The Hill were prepared to give away the contributions yet.
“Mr. Lewis hasn’t had time to consider something like giving back the donations,” said Lewis spokesman Jim Specht. “As chairman of the subcommittee and later the full committee, he receives donations from at least dozens of donors.”
Specht went on to say Lewis had no memory of having met Wade.
“He has known Mr. Wilkes, though it has been some time since [Wilkes has] talked to him. He’s never talked to him about any defense project,” Specht said.
Jim Ellis, head of DeLay’s leadership PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), which received the DeLay donations, said it was too early to make a determination on what to do with the funds.
“We’ll see how it transpires and deal it with then,” he said. “It’s pure speculation at this point. It’s not something we’ve discussed.”
Ellis and two other ARMPAC officials were indicted on unrelated money-laundering charges earlier this year.
Chris Kennedy, a spokesman for Weller, said the donations likely stemmed from Weller’s support of the research-and-development tax credit, a tax benefit popular among a wide swath of technologically inclined manufacturing companies.
“While the situation with Congressman Cunningham is very dismaying, [Weller] acted with propriety in every phase of this,” Kennedy said. “The congressman never had any reason to suspect any impropriety.”
The issue of giving back the money “has not been discussed,” he added.
A spokesman for Hunter said the lawmaker was “tending to personal business with family” and unreachable. The House is in recess until next week.
Phone calls to Doolittle, Bonilla and Goode were not returned before press time.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that in 1998 Hunter joined Cunningham in pressing the Pentagon to put $9.77 million into a program benefiting Wilkes’ ADCS. Hunter has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.
Goode helped Wade’s MZM secure funding this year for the Foreign Supplier Assessment Center, a program based in Martinville, Va, which is located in Goode’s district, according to published reports. MZM held a fundraiser for Goode in March.
Congressional Campaign Contributions from
“Co-Conspirators”, 2001 – 2005*
Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) $66,000
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) $32,000
Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) $30,000
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) $30,000
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) $28,500
Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) $28,250
Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) $20,000
Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) $12,500
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) $11,250
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) $10,000
* Contributions to congressional candidates and their leadership PACs from Mitchell Wade, Brent Wilkes, Tom Kontogiannis and their family members and PACs associated with MZM Inc. and ADCS Inc.
Source: Federal Election Commission reports, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics