Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007 | In the fall of 2003, two investigators with California's Fair Political Practices Commission came to San Diego to conduct a series of interviews related to campaign contributions by friends and associates of local defense contractor Brent Wilkes. The commission's interest in Wilkes and his company, ADCS Inc., had been sparked by thousands of dollars in contributions made by his employees and associates to county Supervisor Ron Roberts' unsuccessful bid for San Diego mayor in 2000.
The Roberts event represented a fraction of the money Wilkes raised for Republicans in California, Congress and the White House. He collected more than $100,000 for President Bush's reelection, earning him the title of Bush "pioneer," and hosted fundraisers for Rep. John Doolittle at his company offices. He served as co-chairman of Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign fundraising in San Diego County in 2003. The governor rewarded him with an appointment to the Del Mar Fair Board the following year.
Wilkes' closest ties were to Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. The two were so close, prosecutors say, that they sat together in a hot tub in Hawaii in August 2003 with prostitutes hired by Wilkes. The former congressman is now serving more than eight years in prison after pleading guilty to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes, including more than $700,000 from Wilkes, whose trial on charges of money laundering, fraud and bribery is set to begin this week in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
Back in 2003, however, the only agency paying attention to Wilkes was the Fair Political Practices Commission, California's election watchdog. The FPPC's investigative summaries, subpoenas and correspondence from Wilkes' attorneys, contained in a 525-page file obtained under the California Public Records Act request, open a window into Wilkes' political operations years before he became a central figure in San Diego's homegrown congressional scandal.
The FPPC zeroed in on a fundraiser Wilkes had thrown May 31, 2000 for Roberts. The event was held at Wilkes' 5,325-square-foot home in a gated community in Poway, the former residence of Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries. At the time, Roberts was the presumptive front-runner, fresh off a big primary victory. The party had been well attended; 500 invitations had been sent out. A band called Tribe of Judah entertained the guests while they nibbled on catered food and mingled by the pool. On its quarterly campaign statement, the Roberts campaign reported receiving $5,750 from Wilkes and 22 of his relatives, employees, or their spouses, who all gave $250 maximum contributions.
Wilkes and his associates ultimately gave more than $10,000 to Roberts, who lost in a close election to Dick Murphy, a former judge. It's unclear what Wilkes was seeking from Roberts, beyond helping a friend get elected mayor. Wilkes' company did not do business with the city or county of San Diego, and he didn't raise money for any other state local candidate in 2000. (Roberts' spokesman, Darren Pudgil, did not return an e-mail and a phone message left seeking comment.)
What troubled the FPPC was that some contributors had filled out slips stamped with ADCS' name, address and phone number on it. The name of ADCS employee Melissa Dollaghan, the wife of Assemblyman George Plescia, R-La Jolla, also appeared on the slips. Some of the contributors lived around Washington, D.C., while others worked for Wilkes at ADCS Inc. in Poway, which digitized paper documents for the U.S. military. For the FPPC investigators, Dennis Pellon and Leon Nurse-Williams, the circumstances raised the possibility that Wilkes may have violated California Political Reform Act, which forbids paying for a contribution in someone else's name, directly or indirectly.
On Sept. 24, 2003, Pellon and Nurse-Williams stopped at the home of an employee of Wilkes named Cliff Rittel, who had written a $500 check to the Roberts campaign. Rittel, who was the director of information technologies at ADCS, seemed disturbed that the investigators had interrupted his viewing of a televised debate on California's gubernatorial election. Since the investigators worked for the FPPC, Rittel demanded, why weren't they watching? He urged Pellon and Nurse-Williams to get on with their questions so he could return to the program.
Before the investigators could ask a question, Rittel demanded to know if the investigators were wired, and, later, he asked whether they had placed a wiretap on his telephone line. The FPPC investigators didn't carry guns — they look more like accountants than cops — and they told Rittel they weren't wired. When the investigators asked whether anyone from ADCS asked him to make a campaign contribution, Rittel refused to answer the question.
About an hour later, the investigators called at the home of Amanda and Richard Ness, who had also given $500 to Wilkes. Amanda Ness had worked as Wilkes' secretary for a year, but she left under less than favorable circumstances. Wilkes practiced nepotism, she told the investigators, and many of his relatives worked for ADCS. When it came to her contribution to the Roberts campaign, Ness said she hadn't been reimbursed for her contributions, although she added that she wouldn't be shocked if some of Wilkes' relatives had been reimbursed. The investigators concluded the interview and left.
Ness, however, had something more to say. She left messages on Pellon's office phone over the next two days. When the investigator returned the call, Ness told him that she had not told him the truth. She had indeed been reimbursed for her contribution to Roberts. A few days before the Roberts fundraiser, Wilkes told Ness that he wouldn't be inviting anyone from the office who wasn't contributing to the Roberts campaign. Ness said she wouldn't be attending since she was short on cash at the time. A day or so later, Ness said Wilkes had come to her office and given her $500 in cash and said something to the effect that "now she and her husband could attend." That would be a clear violation of California election law.
On Sept. 25, Wilkes gave the first of two interviews to the FPPC at his new $11 million corporate facility. Visitors entered a stunning vaulted, steel-and-glass lobby with granite tile floors buffed to a high sheen. Wilkes' private office had a warm, cozy feel. Cherrywood panels lined the walls of the president's suite, which could be warmed by a fireplace at the flick of a switch.
Wilkes told the FPPC that he was very active in local community matters, including politics, and he encouraged his employees to do likewise. Pellon noted in his report that Wilkes said that "his people" were active in the community but they gave their own money. Wilkes said he was well aware of the laws governing political contributions and does not reimburse his employees for making contributions. He said he never had and never will.
As for Roberts, Wilkes said he knew the supervisor personally. Arrangements for the event were made through Roberts' fundraiser, Karolyn Dorsee, who has raised money for Pete Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others. Dorsee had helped Roberts raise more than $1 million in his failed bid for mayor, something that Wilkes reminded the FPPC about. According to the FPPC interview summary, Wilkes said he was shocked that Roberts lost, particularly in light of all the money he raised.
"Roberts' problem is that he's not charismatic," Wilkes told Pellon.
In another interview, this time under oath, Wilkes told the FPPC he didn't recall ever giving Amanda Ness $500 in cash.
"Obviously, since I don't recall it, I would be very surprised to learn that I had," Wilkes said.
Pellon also asked about a $5,000 check Wilkes had written Ness two weeks before the fundraiser. Wilkes explained that he doesn't use ATM machines. He keeps cash in a safe and drew it out as needed.
"I frequently, then and continue to now, use my assistants to run errands for me, and she (Ness) went and cashed a check for me,” he said. It was possible he used the cash to go to Las Vegas, Wilkes continued, "but I can't imagine that I used any cash for a political event."
Wilkes told Pellon that the more than $10,000 he helped raise for Roberts amounted to spare change in federal election cycles.
"I should point out that $10,700 is less than a fraction of one percent of how much money was raised in that deal, and it's less than any one single significant federal contribution, so it wasn't a big part of my life," Wilkes said.
But the bank account records the investigators subpoenaed told a different story. Two of Wilkes' family members had written Roberts a $250 check the day of the fundraiser, and the same day, both had deposited $250 in cash into their checking accounts. Wilkes' nephew thought it might be for a boat payment.
"He believes it is just coincidence that on the same day he deposited $250 into his account, he issued a check for $250 to Ron Roberts," the investigators noted. Before writing a $500 check to the Roberts campaign, Elizabeth Wilkes, Brent's 83-year-old mother, had moved $500 from an account she shared with her son into her personal account. Roberts was a nice man, she told the FPPC investigator. Elizabeth Wilkes said she couldn't recall the name of the man who ran against Roberts — it was Dick Murphy, by that time San Diego's mayor — but "I didn't like him." Wilkes' niece said her father, Robert Wilkes, had loaned her the $250 she gave to Ron Roberts for Mayor, but he lived in Panama, and investigators were unable to speak with him.
As part of the investigation, Pellon spoke by phone with a defense contractor named Mitchell Wade. Wade, who lived and worked in Washington, D.C. and ran a company called MZM Inc., had written a $500 check to Ron Roberts for Mayor two days before the Poway fundraiser. On the same day, he wrote a $2,000 check to Brent Wilkes with the notation "R. Roberts."
Wade told Pellon that Roberts was one of many pro-business candidates he supported all over the country, although he didn't know, three years later, whether Roberts had won the election. What was the $2,000 check about? Wade told Pellon it was a payback of a personal debt, of which he could recall nothing, except that it didn't involve Roberts. Why then would he write "R. Roberts" on a check to pay a personal debt? Wade had no explanation.
Wilkes, similarly, couldn't recall anything about Wade's $2,000 check.
"We didn't spend that much money on the fundraiser, so I can't imagine, I have no concept of what the relationship of that check to any fundraiser is, but I'm aware of the rules and I wouldn't have taken a $2,000 check for a $250 fundraiser," he said. Wilkes said he has, on occasion, asked Wade to make political contributions in federal elections. However, Wilkes said he has never received a check from Wade, made payable to him for a federal candidate.
Wade said he knew of Wilkes, but the two weren't friends or business associates. Wilkes told Pellon a fuller accounting of his history with Wade. A former Defense Department civilian employee, Wade had worked for him from 1998 to 2003. Over that time period, Wilkes said he paid Wade millions of dollars. They worked on many projects together. They took many trips together. Wilkes said he had loaned Wade money over short periods of time, and vice-versa.
Wade was once a very good friend. "We had a little falling out," Wilkes said.
Prosecutors say that the falling out was due to what they call "competing bribe activity." Wade has pleaded guilty and admitted giving Cunningham bribes worth more than $1 million, including the "Duke Stir," the yacht where the congressman lived in Washington, D.C. Today, Wade is awaiting sentencing on charges he bribed Cunningham and is on the list of witnesses prosecutors might call at Wilkes' upcoming trial. Wade's attorneys at the Washington, D.C. firm, WilmerHale, did not respond to a phone message and e-mail left seeking comment.
Pellon returned to San Diego at the end of 2003 to conduct a final set of interviews. By this time, Wilkes had retained attorney Ben Davidian, a prominent Republican and a former chairman of the FPPC. While Pellon was conducting interviews at ADCS offices in September, Davidian had gotten on the phone and called a halt to them. Pellon returned to the home of Amanda Ness, the woman who had confessed that Wilkes had reimbursed her $500 contribution to Roberts. Davidian attended the interview.
Under oath, Ness recalled having left telephone messages for Pellon in September, telling him she had something she wanted to share with him. But she did not remember saying that Wilkes had given her $500 for the Roberts fundraiser.
"I never, ever, said that he said anything such as what you just said," Ness said. Wilkes had given her cash, but it wasn't for the fundraiser. Ness said she had a surgery that cost $100,000 and she was in the middle of a fight with her insurance company.
"As I told you before," Ness said, "Mr. Wilkes would never have done anything that would have been wrong. He wasn't that kind of person. I don't like him, OK. I have no love lost for Mr. Brent Wilkes, so if I had anything, and anytime that I could sit there and nail him for something, this would be it. I don't have anything that would help you. I honestly, on a Holy Bible, could not tell you that he gave me that money for a contribution. He did not do that."
Pellon dutifully recorded her denials, but he didn't believe them. In 2005, the FPPC found reason to believe that Wilkes had committed two counts of California election law violations:
"Given the course of events in this case — Mrs. Ness' denial, then admission, and then denial, of the reimbursement, and the unlikely scenario that a family facing substantial medical costs would pay $500 to support a political candidate at the same time it is accepting a like amount to help pay those medical costs — I find the standard for probable cause has been met," FPPC Executive Director Mark Krausse wrote in an Aug. 5, 2005 order finding probable cause.
The FPPC, which lacks the authority to prosecute criminal charges, levied the maximum penalty it could on Wilkes — a $4,000 fine. "Making campaign contributions in other than one's own name is one of the most serious violations of the (Political Reform) Act," the agency noted. "It undermines one of the basic purposes of disclosing important information to the voting public regarding the true source of campaign support and contributions."
Federal prosecutors intend to show at the forthcoming trial that Wilkes operated with impunity in Washington for years. They have lined up several defense officials who were bullied and threatened by Cunningham when they questioned the value of Wilkes' document scanning projects. But the FPPC had subjected Wilkes' campaign contributions to a scrutiny he wasn't used to at that time.
The FPPC proceedings were delayed for a year by the growing federal investigation into Wilkes' relationship with Cunningham. By then, Wilkes had been worn down by legal battles on many fronts, and he dropped plans to challenge the agency's decision. On Jan. 12, 2007, the FPPC formally fined Wilkes $4,000 for violating the California Political Reform Act. His trial on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery of a public official, money laundering, and other charges is set to begin Wednesday.
An FPPC spokesman declined to provide any additional information. Wilkes and his attorney, Mark Geragos, did not respond to messages left seeking comment.
The FPPC forwarded the Wilkes case, as a courtesy, to Bonnie Dumanis, the San Diego County district attorney. Her spokesman said the office took no action.
Seth Hettena is a freelance writer in San Diego and author of "Feasting on the Spoils The Life and Times of Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, History's Most Corrupt Congressman." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send a letter to the editor.