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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Cunningham Briber Asks 9th Circuit for Retrial

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) - A defense contractor convicted of bribing former Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham struggled to persuade the 9th Circuit to grant him a new trial.

In 2007, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns sentenced Brent Wilkes to 12 years in prison after he was convicted of bribing Cunningham, 72, with cash and other incentives. In exchange, the Republican politician from Rancho Santa Fe allegedly helped Wilkes secure $90 million in Pentagon defense contracts for his document-scanning and software business, ADCS.

Less than a year later, an appeals court released Wilkes on bail while he appealed his convictions for conspiracy, honest services wire fraud, bribery and money laundering. He has since been a free man.

In 2006, Cunningham, a former Navy flying ace, was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison and ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution for taking $2.4 million in bribes.

San Diego federal public defender Shereen Charlick asked the 9th Circuit on Monday to grant Wilkes a new trial in light of new evidence that Cunningham said in prison that Wilkes never bribed him.

Charlick also argued before the three-judge panel that prosecutors should have granted immunity to defense witness Michael Williams, a former ADCS executive who managed a $9.7 million project to scan documents in Panama for the Department of Defense.

She said Williams' testimony could have changed the outcome of a trial she that she claimed had portrayed her client as someone who cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by billing for work that was either inferior or never performed.

Two key witnesses for the prosecution were Wilkes' nephew Joel Combs and defense contractor Mitchell Wade, who both testified against Wilkes in exchange for immunity.

But the panel appeared skeptical of Charlick's claim that Williams' testimony would have "directly contradicted" that of Combs and Wade.

"I'm struggling to find where there is a contradiction," Judge Milan Smith said.

Charlick argued that without Williams' testimony, the trial was unfair. Williams would have established that Wilkes did not defraud the government, she said, undercutting her client's "motive to bribe."

However, assistant U.S. attorney Phillip Halpern cast doubt on the credibility of Williams' testimony and speculated that he would have done more harm to Wilkes' cause than good.

"If they put that witness on that stand, he would have been ripped to shreds," Halpern said. "I think frankly it would have been worse."

Halpern noted that Williams never saw invoices for equipment that prosecutors said Wilkes' company never supplied.

"I'm not sure it really would have helped [Wilkes]," Halpern said of Williams' testimony.

As an aside, Judge Paul Watford questioned why Wilkes had been granted a bond pending appeal.

"What did you say to allow that to happen?" he asked the prosecution.

Halpern replied that the issue was a "sore subject."

"This is one of those instances, we're talking about the largest congressional bribery case in history," he said. "And I'm asked: 'It's how many years and the guy's still not in jail?' I don't like that and it's unfortunate."

Charlick responded that the 9th Circuit had granted bail twice because Wilkes' legal challenge presents a "substantial question."

"My client here seeks a fundamentally fair trial," Charlick said, slamming the "incredibly inaccurate negative portrayal" of her client and the court's decision not to grant immunity to Williams.

Judges Smith and Watford are joined on the panel by Judge William Fletcher.

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