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Federal prosecutors are seeking to interview at least nine current or former staffers on the House Intelligence, Appropriations and Armed Services committees as they widen their probe into the bribery scheme involving former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), according to House officials.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego is also seeking “tens of thousands of pages” of Congressional documents, some going back to 1997, related to Cunningham and government programs he may have had influence over, the officials said.
The information sought by federal prosecutors signals that the corruption probe that began with Cunningham has now clearly moved beyond the actions taken by the imprisoned former lawmaker to other Members, according to several Congressional sources. Cunningham is currently serving a 100-month sentence in federal prison for bribery, fraud and tax evasion.
The three committees, through the House general counsel’s office, have agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors’ request, although they have raised concerns about the breadth of the document search, which one source suggested could potentially “shut down the committees” because of the time demands involved in assembling all the documents that prosecutors have asked for, as well as the number of staffers sought for interviews.
In addition, a large amount of the material being sought by the investigators relates to highly classified, or “black,” programs. Cunningham served on the Defense subcommittee of the Appropriations panel, and also chaired the subcommittee on terrorism, human intelligence, analysis and counterintelligence on the Intelligence Committee. Both panels have access to such secret programs.
“The original request from [federal prosecutors] was overly broad and onerous,” said a GOP aide familiar with the issue.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego made an informal request for the documents and staffer interviews in a March 7 letter to the House general counsel, and the House’s response was issued early last month. No subpoenas have been issued at this time for the staffers’ testimony on documents. Any subpoena issued to a Member, staffer or committee would have to be reported on the House floor.
The House has not invoked the Speech or Debate Clause in the negotiations over staffer interviews or documents being sought by prosecutors, although the House could fall back on that privilege as a defense if it chose to turn down the prosecutorial request. The Speech or Debate Clause provides immunity to Members or staffers from criminal prosecution over actions taken while performing official legislative duties.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego declined to comment for this article.
The efforts by investigators to interview House staffers and obtain committee documents are part of a growing federal probe that now extends into the upper reaches of the CIA, as well as Capitol Hill and the defense contracting and lobbying worlds, and focuses on the web of relationships between lawmakers, lobbyists and the companies that receive earmarks in appropriations bills.
On Friday, the FBI raided the home and CIA office of Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, who until he resigned last week was the third highest-ranking official at the CIA. Foggo has a long friendship with Brent Wilkes, a California defense contractor allegedly among those who paid more than $2.4 million in bribes to Cunningham in return for government contracts.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Wilkes provided Cunningham, and possibly other government officials, with prostitutes, limousines and hotel suites, according to media reports. Mitchell Wade, another defense contractor, has already pleaded guilty to bribing Cunningham and is cooperating with DOJ.
And The Los Angeles Times reported last Thursday that the Justice Department has begun looking into Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and his interactions with an ex-Member turned lobbyist, former Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.). The U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles is overseeing that portion of the federal probe.
Prosecutors are exploring the relationship between the two men, who served on the Appropriations panel for eight years together before Lowery left Congress in 1992. Specifically, investigators are looking into whether any company or organization was asked to hire Lowery’s lobbying firm before seeking help from Lewis on a federal spending program, as well as the movement of several GOP aides between Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White and Lewis’ staff. Lowery and his clients have steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Lewis while winning tens of millions of dollars in appropriations earmarks.
Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White also lobbied on behalf of Wilkes’ defense company, ADCS Inc., from 1998 to 2000, and then again from 2002 to 2005. The firm originally reported earning $160,000-plus in lobbying fees from ADCS, but in March 2006, after Wilkes was identified as the subject of a federal corruption probe, Copeland Lowery filed amended lobbying disclosure reports indicating that it had been paid more than $340,000 by ADCS during that period, according to documents on file with the Clerk of the House.
Wilkes and his employees, friends, relatives and business partners have donated $60,000 to Lewis’ re-election campaign and leadership political action committee, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Lewis has denied any link with illegal or improper behavior, and his office said he has not been contacted by any federal authorities seeking information on him or his relationship with Lowery or other individuals.
“I have never, under any circumstances, told or suggested to someone seeking federal dollars for a project that they would receive favorable treatment by making campaign donations. If I learned that anyone on my staff made such a suggestion, they would no longer be working for me,” Lewis said in a statement released by his office on Thursday.