The Money Trail

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2007-04-02 Print this article Print

A year after U.S. Congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham was sentenced to prison in one the biggest federal information-technology scandals ever, details about the case continue to emerge.

The Money Trail

In 1995, San Diego businessman Brent Roger Wilkes started ADCS (an acronym for Automated Document Conversion Systems), a systems integrator and software vendor specializing in solutions for information transformation.

Soon after, Wilkes began making friends with some powerful people in government and passing out campaign contributions like, well, campaign buttons. One of the recipients was Rep. Duncan Hunter, a San Diego Republican who then chaired the House Armed Services Committee. (He is currently a ranking member.) Wilkes and his associates gave Hunter, a Vietnam veteran like Cunningham, $40,700 in campaign contributions, according to a story in USA Today. With various business associates, Wilkes also doled out $88,252 in campaign contributions from 1993 to 2005 to another California Republican, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Additionally, Wilkes served as a "Pioneer" for George Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, meaning he collected more than $100,000 in contributions for the president.

Nothing improper has been suggested with the contributions. Both Hunter and Lewis are said to have donated their money to charity.

According to the Justice Department, Wilkes, around 1996, began aggressively courting Duke Cunningham, then a member of the House of Representatives from California's 50th Congressional District, which covers part of north coastal San Diego County. Cunningham, elected to the House in 1991, was well positioned to help his fellow Californian open doors in the Pentagon, having at various times served as a member of the Appropriations and Intelligence committees, and chaired the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Human Intelligence Analysis and Counterintelligence during the 109th Congress.

To win over Cunningham, the Justice Department claims, Wilkes plied the congressman with thousands of dollars in meals at Washington's Capital Grille, The Palm, Ozios and numerous other restaurants. Duke liked to eat well and travel first class. Wilkes hired Shirlington Limo to drive Duke around town and directed an ADCS employee to purchase a fiberglass-hulled Sea Doo Speedster boat costing $11,225 for Cunningham, according to the Justice Department.

Concurrently, the Justice Department charges, Cunningham began to pressure the Pentagon to provide ADCS with work. In late September 1996, Cunningham informed the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Logistics) that he wanted a Defense Department document conversion program funded, according to the Justice Department. This initially was a $5 million program to digitize Pentagon documents and engineering drawings. Soon after, Wilkes got a $1 million Pentagon contract in 1997, which Cunningham proclaimed "an asset" to San Diego in a full-page newspaper ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune, according to the newspaper.

Subsequently, ADCS won several contracts to work on the Facilities, Infrastructure and Engineering System (FIRES), a computer program to collect blueprints of facilities worldwide to create an intelligence database; it was initially operated out of the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), a support facility for the Army, and later the Joint Counterintelligence Assessment Group (JCAG), a Defense Department component. On or about May 21, 1998, Cunningham wrote to the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on National Security, requesting $64 million for digital conversion, about $10 million of which went to ADCS, according to Justice.

When the ADCS's qualifications were questioned by rival vendors, such as software provider Audre, in an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the combative Republican claimed he believed flat-out that ADCS had the best software available. Anyone saying otherwise, he bristled, "can go to hell," the Union-Tribune reported.

After a report from the Pentagon's Inspector General came out stating that "little demand exists" for automated data conversion systems, Cunningham warned that the Republic of China might try to take over the Panama Canal once U.S. forces left in 1999. If that happened, Cunningham argued, it would be vital to have digitized blueprints of public buildings, the Union-Tribune reported.

In addition to the 1997 Pentagon contract, in 1999 ADCS was awarded another $9.7 million contract to convert documents related to the Panama Canal Zone, according to the Copley News Service. Subsequently, the company began collecting more than $20 million a year in defense business.

Cunningham not only used his influence to get much of this work, the Justice Department says, but he helped Wilkes collect funds when the Pentagon was tardy in paying. In April 2001, he tried to get a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense fired for not awarding to ADCS all the funds appropriated to the NGIC FIRES program.

With the backing of Cunningham and some of his other friends in Congress, Wilkes, who used to boast he had ties to the CIA, according to several published accounts, didn't hesitate to throw his weight around. He even went so far as to threaten a FIRES program manager in Panama on March 1, 1999, warning him "that people disappear in Panama all the time and never make it back home," according to the Justice Department.

When Wilkes didn't get the results he wanted, Cunningham is said to have had his back. On or about Nov. 18, 1998, Wilkes threatened Defense's Document Conversion Program manager with congressional reprisal if he did not allocate sufficient funding to ADCS projects and immediately pay all outstanding ADCS invoices, even when it could not be verified that the work had been done, the Justice Department charges. The following day, Cunningham called the manager, urging him to pay all ADCS invoices.

And Cunningham wasn't hesitant to bully high-level government officials when Wilkes' interests were on the line. On March 23, 2000, during a hearing held by the House Appropriations Committee on Defense, he angrily confronted Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, according to the Justice Department. Cunningham was concerned that the Defense Department had not yet released $4 million in funds that were slated to go to ADCS. ADCS soon had its money.

In a 2001 letter to Wilkes, Cunningham wrote, "I feel fortunate to represent the nation's top technology talent in the Ôblack' world," referring to classified government programs. Wilkes likely felt even more fortunate. Between 1996 and 2005, ADCS, thanks largely to Cunningham, the Justice Department charges, received at least $80 million in federal contracts.

Next page: Enter Mitchell Wade


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