In mid-2000, five years before the bribery scheme run by former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) began to unravel, the Pentagon began a criminal investigation involving a defense contractor now implicated in the scandal, according to a Defense Department official and Justice Department documents.
The Defense Criminal Investigative Service, a Pentagon agency, made a criminal referral to the Justice Department following this investigation in 2000, but the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego decided not to bring charges in the case.
The revelation raises questions about whether federal officials missed an opportunity to forestall one of the worst bribery cases ever involving a sitting Member of Congress, as well as potentially saving taxpayers millions of dollars in misappropriated funds.
Last Friday, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in federal prison for accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes, fraud and tax evasion. He was also ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution to the government.
One of Cunningham’s co-conspirators, Mitchell Wade, the former CEO of defense contractor MZM Inc., has pleaded guilty to paying more than $1 million in bribes to Cunningham. Wade now faces more than 11 years years behind bars.
Another alleged co-conspirator in the scandal is Brent Wilkes, CEO of ADCS Inc., a California-based defense contractor. Wilkes has not been formally named as a target of the Justice Department investigation, but his identity as “Co-conspirator no. 1” in the Cunningham case has been publicly confirmed by his lawyers.
The three men were at the heart of a corruption scheme whereby Cunningham allegedly helped them obtain Defense Department contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in return for bribes, including a boat, a car and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
Wade’s purchase of Cunningham’s home in November 2003 for a price that exceeded its market value by $700,000 became the subject of a story in the San Diego Union Tribune on June 12, 2005. That story prompted a federal criminal investigation that culminated, within just a few months, in Cunningham’s resignation and guilty plea.
The new disclosed information, however, indicates that Wilkes had come to the attention of federal investigators five years earlier. While the scale of alleged corruption would take years to reach its full extent, the first bribe apparently paid to Cunningham was made around the same time that DOD’s criminal investigation got under way.
In April 2000, the Defense Department Inspector General’s office received an anonymous hotline complaint, according to Gary Comerford, a spokesman for the IG’s office. The case was assigned to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, which handles criminal probes for the Pentagon. Comerford would not disclose the allegations raised in the hotline complaint, stating that the details of such complaints are kept confidential.
However, in June 2000, two agents for DCIS’ Western Field Office in Mission Viejo, Calif., flew to Washington to interview an unnamed official in the Defense secretary’s office. That person is referred to as “Official D” in documents released by the Justice Department in relation to the Cunningham case. The interview with the DCIS agents and the DOD official took place at the Four Points Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., according to the DCIS report.