The Cunningham Web
CORRECTION: The version of this article in the February print edition incorrectly included a photo of Brent A. Wilkes, the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, instead of Brent R. Wilkes, the contractor involved with Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. LULAC's Wilkes has no connection with the scandal, and we deeply regret the error.
Investigations and potential targets multiply in bribery scandal.
Though the holiday season theoretically is a time of peace on Earth and good will toward men, the end of 2005 in Washington was anything but. And thus far in 2006, the season of rancor and scandal shows little sign of abating.
Between the snowballing controversy over domestic spying by the National Security Agency, the contentious Samuel Alito Supreme Court nomination hearings and the Jack Abramoff lobbying mess, an air of the ethically dubious hangs over all branches of government. Also still developing is the investigation centering on former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.
Cunningham pleaded guilty on Nov. 29, 2005, to receiving at least $2.4 million in bribes. But his tearful elocution before Judge Larry A. Burns of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California was not the end of the San Diego U.S. Attorney's Office's public corruption probe in the case.
Still in the cross hairs are four alleged co-conspirators: previously convicted felon Thomas Kontogiannis; his nephew-in-law, financier John T. Michael; and San Diego-area national security contractors Brent Wilkes, founder of defense contractor ADCS Inc., a system integrator for government and industry specializing in information management; and Mitchell Wade, formerly chief executive officer and president of MZM Inc., a Washington-based firm with offices in San Diego that provides intelligence-gathering, technology and homeland security analysis and consulting for government and the private sector. Of particular interest to federal investigators are not just Wilkes and Wade-who Cunningham said had bribed him in exchange for using his post on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to steer lucrative contracts to them-but also other Congress members the contractors might have sought to influence. Cunningham is to be sentenced Feb. 27.
In Washington, another Cunningham probe initiated by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., is getting under way. Before Congress' December recess, committee Republicans and Democrats agreed that a yet-to-be-hired special committee counsel and two staffers will begin reviewing Cunningham's service on the panel for improprieties, possibly including corrupt dealings with contractors or national security violations.
The Intelligence Committee probe might examine Cunningham's recent championing of Saudi Arabia. For most of his congressional career, Cunningham said few kind words about the country. In 1990, he trounced an Arab-American primary challenger by casting him as "influenced by Arab oil interests." But in 2004, Cunningham made two trips to Saudi Arabia and came back lavishly praising the Saudis and making impassioned pleas for better Saudi-U.S. intelligence relations. Addressing the then-State Department counterterrorism coordinator, Ambassador Cofer Black, during an Aug. 4, 2004, Intelligence Committee hearing, Cunningham noted his fear that Saudi intelligence cooperation might erode. In October 2004, he spoke of the need to help Saudi Arabia, "a nation that is trying to help itself" with regard to intelligence.
Shortly after his appointment to the House Intelligence Committee, Cunningham sent a Feb. 8, 2001, letter to San Diego-area contractors touting his new "greater opportunities" to "represent the nation's top technological talent in the 'black' world."
In light of this letter, as well as ties between Cunningham and a Saudi family in a joint venture with a San Diego defense contractor, the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington-based group that investigates federal corruption, wonders whether Cunningham was laying the groundwork to steer Saudi-oriented U.S. intelligence contracts or help companies establish inroads to the Saudi market. Given Cunningham's track record, "it seems investigators should be looking into whether he inappropriately used his position to stir up Saudi-related work for his friends," says Beth Daley, POGO's communications director.
What's more, in a story in the San Diego-area North County Times on Jan. 10, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., who accompanied Cunningham on one of the Saudi trips, said Kontogiannis was along too, and joined Cunningham in meetings with senior Saudi officials. Exactly what role Kontogiannis, a real estate businessman, played on a trip focused on counterterrorism is unclear. But after discovering Kontogiannis' previous bribery and visa fraud convictions, Calvert said, "If I had known his background, I wouldn't have felt very comfortable."
And then there's the matter of the person who paid for Cunningham's Saudi expeditions, as well as Calvert's. Cunningham's trips cost about $10,000, and were paid for by a person Cunningham referred to in a speech as simply "a constituent." House travel records show the constituent to be a naturalized American citizen named Ziyad Abduljawad, identified by Southern California media as a Saudi-American real estate developer.
Abduljawad's father has turned up on a list of Osama bin Laden financial supporters. As part of a multinational investigation into an Islamist charity called Benevolence International Foundation in 2002, Bosnian authorities raided the group's Sarajevo office and retrieved a document, dubbed the "Golden Chain," listing 15 Saudis from whom bin Laden sought or received money. Salahuddin Abduljawad, father of Ziyad, was one of the 15.
According to Peter Bergen, author of the best seller Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (Free Press, 2002) and the just-released The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader (Free Press, 2006), being on the Golden Chain does not necessarily make Abduljawad's father a fund- er of al Qaeda. Rough consensus holds that the list names people who helped bin Laden obtain funding for his pre-al Qaeda work with the Afghan mujahedin. "The allegation that some have made saying it's support of al Qaeda, I'm not sure is the case," Bergen says. Yet former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement Jonathan M. Winer says Cunningham's decision to accept a trip to Saudi Arabia from someone with even a distant Golden Chain connection raises serious concerns. "Trips like this are almost always funded by a foreign government, a charity, a nongovernmental organization, someone with a recognized history of involvement," he says. "When you have an American congressman taking funds from someone for foreign travel who's not regularly in the business of doing that, it would raise eyebrows. If I had been staffing the congressman in this case, I would have done some research on the Golden Chain and said, 'You have a real potential problem here.' "
The Abduljawad family business also appears to have ties with a San Diego-based U.S. defense contractor. The Abduljawad Group operates primarily in Saudi Arabia, with diverse interests including automotive imports and the local Mail Boxes Etc. franchise. But it also has an American venture listed on its Web site, a La Jolla, Calif.-based wireless communications company called GlobTel Inc. Papers filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate that GlobTel operates as a joint venture under the name Ellumina with San Diego contractor SYS Technologies, which provides wireless communications, applications development, integration and data visualization to the Defense and Homeland Security departments.