No one in Judge Burns’ courtroom was more surprised when Brent Wilkes marched up to the witness stand this morning than the government prosecutors. I would have been pretty nonplussed if I, too, had been given assurances that Wilkes would not be testifying. But it was an effective bit of legal strategy by defense attorney Mark Geragos, and Wilkes scored points while the government fumbled its hastily-prepared cross-examination.
Unlike the government, Wilkes was ready. He had waited two years for this day, maintaining his innocence in the face of enormous pressure to plead guilty and be done with it, and this was finally his chance to tell his story and confront his accusers. His children were in the gallery to watch dad testify (except for the part about the prostitutes).
Wilkes insisted that he never bribed anybody. He never asked anybody to support a project unless they believed in it. No, he didn’t ply Duke with food and drink to get him to do his bidding. Yes, he did try to buy the congressman’s yacht for $100,000, but he made no secret of it.
The $525,000 payment on Cunningham’s mortgage? That was an investment, which he even tried to get back. As for the two escorts that the government brought from Hawaii to testify about their night with Wilkes and Duke, well, Wilkes said he had never seen them before. He had an answer for every dirty charge the government had made against him.
For his testimony to be true:
- Mitch Wade must be lying.
- Joel Combs, Wilkes’ nephew, must be lying.
- The escorts must be lying.
So Wilkes was essentially making a huge wager that jurors would believe he was taken advantage of by a double-crossing Mitch Wade, his incompetent nephew, and a corrupt congressman, not to mention the overzealous government investigators who ruined Wilkes’ career and his marriage.
We were all curious what the government would do on cross, but Geragos’ maneuvering left Halpern with less than an hour to prepare. It showed. His questions were argumentative and off the mark. Several attempts to impeach Wilkes failed because Halpern couldn’t get the documents he needed admitted as evidence.
Halpern did elicit this bit of CIA humor when he asked whether Wilkes told his employees to cover up the wrongdoing with Cunningham. (Remember Wilkes’ best friend was Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, the former executive director of the Central Intelligence Agency.)
I believe you’re referring to the phrase, ‘Admit nothing, deny everything and make counteraccusations. It’s a CIA saying. It’s a joke.
At other times, the prosecutor lost control of his witness. He allowed Wilkes to trash the government’s witnesses and deliver a ringing endorsement of earmarks:
Earmarks are not dirty things and earmarks are an alternative to a bureaucracy being in complete control of the budget.
Instead of challenging this (bridge to nowhere, anyone?) Halpern only rolled his eyes in disbelief.
It dawned on me that Halpern was trying to run out the clock, stalling until the end of the day so he could regroup and prepare for a proper cross. But in the meantime, he afforded Wilkes a prime opportunity to connect with the jury at the government’s expense. Jurors were cracking up at Wilkes’ jokes and smiling when he shook his head at Halpern’s questioning.
Halpern will resume his cross on Tuesday.