If Brent Wilkes is acquitted, and that’s a big if, it’s because of what happened Tuesday and Friday when he took the witness stand to defend himself from charges of bribing former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
You’ll recall that the government’s lawyers had believed defense attorney Mark Geragos when he assured them that his client would be sitting it out. After Wilkes took the stand Friday, prosecutor Phil Halpern bumbled his way through two hours of cross-examination based on documents he gathered over the lunch break.
When trial resumed at 9 a.m. today, it seemed, at first, that Halpern hadn’t used the time to regroup, as he started out nervous and apprehensive. Halpern must have felt that the entire case, everything he and countless agents had done over the past two years, was in his hands — and in truth, it was. Wilkes, ready as ever, continued making speeches from the witness stand. He refused to let the government impose its narrative upon him.
Less than an hour had gone by before jurors were checking watches, yawning and playing with pens. Wilkes cracked the jurors up when he explained he bought a box at Coors Amphitheater because it was the only way to get Spice Girls tickets for his daughter.
Around 10:15 a.m., Halpern started landing punches. He zeroed in on the bribes, in particular the $100,000 in checks that Wilkes wrote to Cunningham in 2000. Wilkes claimed the money was payment for the Duke’s yacht, a converted shrimp boat named the Kelly C, but the congressman kept both the boat and the money. So why didn’t Wilkes demand his money back?
A: At some point you have have to rely on important people like a congressman to have some instinct for self-preservation….
Wilkes then went on about how it was a “total misrepresentation” to say he relied on the congressman to do everything for him. In fact, Wilkes said, Reps. John Porter of Illinois and Jerry Lewis of California were far more important. Halpern pressed on
Q: At the time you wanted the money back you were seeking Cunningham’s support?
A. Yes, that’s true.
After recess, Wilkes threw some jabs of his own. “Lawyers are sneaky sometimes,” he remarked. (Cue jury laughter) And then later “I’d be happy to go through it. You haven’t been paying attention.” If the last one sounded arrogant to you, it did to me as well.
Then it was back to the government’s best friends in this case, the prostitutes. Wilkes continued, amazingly, to deny it all, and Judge Burns sustained defense objections to these oh so juicy questions:
Q. Didn’t you use the services of prostitutes many times?
Q. Isn’t it true you lied to your about your use of prostitutes?
It was now 11:20 a.m. Wilkes had been on the witness stand for a day and a half, and we returned to the muck. “Cash forecast…difficult cash flow position…steps that would be taken during the unlawful detainer process….small businesses encounter cash flow problems.” My notes at this point indicate that my rear end was hurting. It seemed as germane an observation as anything else that was going on.
But Halpern managed to end strong.
Q. Did you ever pay the mortgage for another congressman?
Q. Did you ever get in a hot tub with another congressman?
Q. Isn’t it true that having Cunningham indebted to you was far more valuable than getting your money back?
Closing arguments began at 2:45 p.m. Prosecutor Sanjay Bhandari gave a very succinct, calm and, I thought, effective closing argument. He said the case boiled down to a question of whether Wilkes gave Cunningham things of value for influence and then tried to hide it. Wilkes friendship with Cunningham, Bhandari said, was a cultivated one, motivated by an attempt to get something back from the congressman. Every time Wilkes wanted something from Cunningham, a bribe changed hands. Wilkes’ defense was a cover story concocted long ago. For him to be telling the truth, a long list of people have to be lying.
A very animated Mark Geragos told jurors that the only lies they have heard were ones the government had been telling them, based on the testimony of admitted felons like Mitch Wade. The prosecutors had been misleading them. According to Geragos, the government didn’t want to hear the truth, namely that Washington isn’t a “pristine place.” Wilkes had struggled for years to succeed in government contracting and for a reward, he got indicted, paid $2 million bail and had the government say in essence we’re going to crush you. And why had jurors never heard from Cunningham? The reason, according to Geragos, was Duke was never, ever going to say that what Wilkes was doing wasn’t good for the country.
Jurors will get the case tomorrow after both sides finish up.
Update: Deliberations are underway. Prosecutor Jason Forge gave a devastating rebuttal this morning. Just brutal. There were so many great lines but my favorite was when Forge said Wilkes’ defense reminded him of a children’s book called David Gets in Trouble. Forge then read the book to the jury. “When David gets in trouble, he always says No! It’s not my fault.”
Ladies and gentlemen, this man was the architect of a multi-million dollar corruption scheme and he has the defense of a 5-year-old.