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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wilkes Still on the Hook for Bribing Congressman

(CN) - Brent Wilkes, the small-time defense contractor whose bribes to U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham turned him into a bigger defense contractor, lost an appeal Wednesday fighting his conviction in the 9th Circuit.

Wilkes was convicted on 10 counts of honest-services wire fraud, and one count each of conspiracy, bribery and money laundering in November 2007.

Prosecutors said Cunningham, a California congressman, "provided lucrative government defense contracts to Wilkes and others in exchange for expensive meals, lavish trips, a houseboat in Washington, D.C., and mortgage payments for his multi-million dollar home in San Diego County."

Cunningham is currently in prison and is scheduled to be released in June 2013.

Wilkes paid Cunningham more than $700,000 for nearly a decade, in return for which the congressman "corruptly directed" more than $80 million in defense contracts to Wilkes' company, ADCS, of Poway, Calif., prosecutors said.

Wilkes made "tens of millions of dollars" from the deals. A federal judge ordered Wilkes to forfeit more than $600,000 and fined him $500,000.

A three-judge panel based in Pasadena, Calif., rejected most of Wilkes' arguments on appeal, finding that the trial court did not commit any reversible errors in the convictions.

Among other arguments, Wilkes claimed he was prejudiced by the disclosure of his grand jury indictment before the trial. The appellate judges rejected this argument, since Wilkes could not prove that the improperly leaked information affected the jury.

During closing arguments, Wilkes' attorney asked why the government did not question the congressman, and told the jury the fact that the government did not call Cunningham to the witness stand "speaks volumes about the fact that they didn't believe him."

The government responded by telling the jury that it was "not going to put the most corrupt politician in the history of this country on the witness stand and give him a chance to get a break in his sentence."

Wilkes argued that the prosecutor's statement prejudiced him, but the federal appeals court said Wilkes invited the answer when his counsel asked about Cunningham.

"In addition, the government presented substantial evidence of Wilkes' conspiracy, fraud, bribery and money laundering, thereby eliminating any lingering doubt that the prosecutor's remarks unfairly prejudiced the jury's deliberations," Judge Arthur Alarcon wrote for the court.

Wilkes also argued that the evidence presented at trial was not sufficient to convict him on all counts, based on a recent Supreme Court decision in Skilling v. United States. In that decision, the high court ruled that honest-services fraud applies only to bribes and kickback schemes.

Again, the judges disagreed.

"The evidence against Wilkes of honest services fraud, however, was sufficient to convict because the government proved that Wilkes engaged in a scheme to defraud the United States and its citizens of their right to Cunningham's honest services, and that this scheme involved both quid pro quo bribery and material misrepresentations," Alarcon wrote.

The court did order remand since an evidentiary hearing is needed to gather more detail about the proposed testimony of one of Wilkes' witnesses.

Wilkes claimed the trial court should have compelled prosecutors to grant use immunity to the witness, whose testimony would have contradicted those of government witnesses.

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