Sorry for the delay in blogging. The trial had been a snooze-fest (The judge’s clerk passed him a note Thursday that read “Mayday, mayday, jurors are falling asleep”) but things got pretty interesting Friday. Family and friends kept me busy this weekend so I’m just now getting a chance to set my thoughts down.
The prosecution at the trial of defense contractor Brent Wilkes began Friday morning by calling one of its star witnesses, a man by the name of Mitchell Wade. Wade has pleaded guilty to supply Cunningham bribes that total more than $2 million, including a Rolls-Royce and the infamous Duke-Stir yacht. He spent most of the day in the witness box, testifying in hopes of a reduced sentence, or as Cunningham himself put it, trying to save his donkey.
I was very interested to hear what Wade had to say. Aside from a brief apology during his plea hearing last year, Wade has kept silent. When I went to his Great Falls, Virginia the estate (named “Windy Knoll”) to try and interview him, Wade waved at me through the window and then made his wife answer the door. Wade’s DC law firm WilmerHale has shielded him the way the Patriots offensive line protects Tom Brady.
Wade was the government’s best witness so far. He was completely honest and frank about his own greed and treachery, and that made for some pretty compelling testimony. The jurors seemed pretty interested, too. Wade seems to have lost weight from the time the above photo was taken. He spoke precisely, in a hushed voice, almost like he didn’t want everybody to hear. If Wilkes walks, it won’t be Wade’s fault.
Part of the credit goes to prosecutor Jason Forge, who did an excellent job leading the direct examination. His questions were simple and straightforward and he kept things moving right along. There was none of the awkwardly phrased questions or the avalanche of boring detail that has characterized much of the government’s case.
Wade has clearly given the prosecutors a lot to work with. He was introduced to Duke by Brent Wilkes, who hired Wade as a consultant in 1998. Wade described Cunningham, accurately, as a man of below average intelligence. He testified that he and Wilkes came to dread dinners with the Duke and hearing him tell the same stories over and over.
Part of Wade’s job was to take care of Defense Department officials who got in Wilkes’ way, and he often used Duke to do it. One of the pieces of evidence he testified about was a script he wrote for the congressman to put pressure on a Defense Department official. To keep things clear, Wade wrote out “I (Duke)…”
What Wade learned from Wilkes convinced him he could expand his own business and he began to cultivate his own relationship with the congressman in 2001, without telling Wilkes. When Duke asked him for $50,000 at the end of 2001, Wade viewed it as an opportunity. “I wanted to solicit the same favors and benefits that Brent did,” he said.
Wade soon had his own stash of blank stationery from Cunningham’s congressional office upon which he could write missives in Duke’s name to bully whomever he wanted. And Duke started the appropriations flowing to Wade’s company, MZM Inc. The one-man consultancy grew into a sizable defense contractor headquartered near DuPont Circle in a few years.
Amazingly, Wade was still working for Wilkes while this was going on. Eventually, Wilkes’ government contracts started going to Wade, and the game was up. But Wade was raking it in. He and Wilkes delivered worthless crap like off-the-shelf computer equipment to the government and then marked it up as much as 600 percent. The bureaucrats who knew what was going were too scared to stop it. “It was not my finest hour,” said one.
Wilkes’ defense attorney, Mark Geragos, pointed out that most of the bribes that Wade knew about were paid for out of his pocket. Wilkes did buy the congressman a lot of expensive dinners at The Capital Grille, as well as a trip to the Four Seasons in Las Vegas in 1999 (although Wade paid the hotel bill himself.) Wade also overheard Duke on the phone with Wilkes in 2004 and heard Cunningham demanding that Wilkes deliver $500,000 “right away.”
As effective as Wade was, I was still left hungry for more. What did Wilkes do for Cunningham besides buy him dinner? Is that even bribery in Washington? As several of the prosecution’s witnesses have pointed out, when congressmen dine with lobbyists at The Capital Grille they don’t reach for their wallets.
I’m not a lawyer (I can almost see the prosecutors reading this nodding their heads in agreement) but I think the government hasn’t established a crucial element of the charges against Wilkes: intent.
It’s clear that money and favors went from Wilkes to Duke; Wilkes wrote checks and the money wound up in the congressman’s bank accounts. It’s also clear that Duke went around pounding his chest every time a DoD bureaucrat questioned the job Wilkes was doing. What’s missing is evidence linking the two.
Prosecutors in my view haven’t yet shown that Wilkes gave Cunningham money with the intent of corrupting him, the quid pro quo. Yes, Wilkes was buying dinners and writing checks, but were these payments intended to corrupt the congressman? So far, the evidence is circumstantial: Wilkes bought dinners and wrote checks; Duke went far out of his way to help him.
In other words, they have shown that Wilkes had a gun and someone got shot, but haven’t yet proven that he pulled the trigger.