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[Six Questions]

Six Questions for Seth Hettena on the Brent Wilkes Trials


Seth Hettena spent nine years with the Associated Press, where he broke stories about a terrorist suspect who was tortured to death by the CIA, revealed photos of Navy SEALs mistreating Iraqi prisoners, and exposed how the military secretly contracted planes for CIA rendition flights. He also reported extensively on the intimate ties defense contractor Brent Wilkes maintained with Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (now a federal inmate) and CIA official Kyle “Dusty” Foggo. He tells that story in his new book, Feasting on the Spoils. With Wilkes soon to go to trial on charges that he bribed Cunningham and Foggo, I recently asked Hettena six questions about the upcoming court cases.

1. The evidence against Wilkes as laid out in the press appears to be pretty strong. What is his defense likely to be?
Wilkes is facing trial in two separate cases that are tangentially related. The first, which will be tried in September, involves bribes he allegedly paid to Congressman Duke Cunningham. Prosecutors claim a variety of bribes were paid, including time with prostitutes. Prosecutors have to show a quid pro quo to win a conviction, and I think showing that Wilkes bought Cunningham a dinner and then got a defense contract won’t be enough. One of the biggest hurdles for Wilkes is a series of checks he wrote to Cunningham to pay for a yacht, though in the end he never bought it. The prosecutors’ version is that afterwards, Wilkes told Cunningham to simply keep the money he gave him for the yacht. Wilkes claims he asked for the money back, Cunningham refused, and there was nothing he could do about it. The second case involves mortgage payments of about $500,000 that Wilkes made on Cunningham’s mansion. Wilkes can’t deny that he made the payments because there’s a paper trail, but he claims Cunningham demanded the money in exchange for arranging federal contracts for Wilkes, that he was shaken down. Prosecutors say that Wilkes demanded the government contracts and pushed the money on Cunningham.

2. What about the second trial?
That one will probably get underway next year and involves bribes Wilkes allegedly paid to Dusty Foggo, the former CIA executive director, in order to win contracts from the agency. The big problem for Wilkes in this case is that his nephew Joel Combs is cooperating with prosecutors. Foggo reportedly lined up several deals for Wilkes, including a $132 million contract to provide commercial cover for a CIA air transport operation. He also is said to have pushed a CIA contractor to hire Wilkes as a lobbyist. The alleged quid pro quos that Foggo received from Wilkes were lavish vacations in Scotland and Hawaii, along with numerous $1,000 meals at restaurants around the world. I’m not sure how Wilkes is going to explain those. I suspect he’ll say Dusty was a lifelong friend and he wanted him along on those vacations independently of anything to do with the contracts.

3. And what is Foggo’s defense likely to be?
I’ve heard that part of his defense will be that some of the contracts he arranged for Wilkes involved the CIA’s preparations for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He may argue that the CIA was woefully unprepared for war and he was scrambling to equip agency personnel as quickly as possible.

4. Foggo at one point asked that his trial be moved from San Diego to Virginia. What happened with that request?
He told the court that a trial in San Diego would create hardship for him and his family because they live in Virginia, and that his wife wouldn’t be able to attend the trial and provide support to him. The prosecutors came back and said that Foggo was seeking to paint “a picture of a warm, loving, and supportive married life” but that this was “not necessarily an entirely accurate depiction.” They left it at that but they were apparently referring to reports that Dusty had a hearty appetite for women, including prostitutes. In the end, the trial was kept in San Diego.

5. What are some of the lesser-known revelations from the court papers and your book?
One interesting item was that Foggo apparently mentioned to a number of CIA associates that he was considering running for Duke Cunningham’s seat in congress after Cunningham retired. Also, and this is one of my favorite stories in the book, Wilkes in the early-1990s was working for a defense contractor in San Diego who was having problems with a procurement official at the Pentagon. So Wilkes and Foggo cooked up a plot whereby they recruited a couple of off-duty cops, one who was a very attractive woman. She struck up a flirty conversation with the procurement official and basically induced him to come to Florida. Foggo had arranged a hotel room and they taped the official getting drunk and making threatening comments about Wilkes’s boss. Wilkes went back to San Diego and played the tape for his boss–he also asked for $20,000 to cover his expenses–and his boss said, this is great, I’ll take it to the authorities. Wilkes said, don’t do that, the procurement official will just get fired and his replacement could be just as much trouble. Just hold on to the tape, with this you own the guy.

6. Why was Wilkes’s attorney thrown off the Foggo case earlier this week?
Wilkes was being represented by celebrity attorney Mark Geragos, who has represented people like Winona Ryder, Michael Jackson, Roger Clinton, and Gary Condit. Geragos refused to undergo a background check so he could get a security clearance to view classified material, of which there were at least 50,000 pages. He said it was akin to a Soviet tactic where the government can tell an attorney what he can and can’t look at. The judge initially went along this but then he saw some of the classified material that the prosecutors had. Whatever was there convinced the judge that Geragos needed to see it–he hinted that it might even be exculpatory. But Geragos still refused to get a background check so the judge had no choice but to remove him from the case. That leaves Wilkes without an attorney, with his trials only months away.

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