Brent Wilkes: The EarmarkerӔ

Brent Wilkes is accused of illegally setting up his own lobbying firm to convince members of Congress to earmark money via appropriations bills.

BY Conor Kenny

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The Players

Part capitalist, part government contractor and part lobbyist, Wilkes was an expert in obtaining federal contracts for small defense companies in exchange for a large contingency fee or control of the company. To facilitate the process, Wilkes set up his own personal lobbying firm to convince members of Congress to specifically mandate the contracts through amendments to the appropriations bills. These amendments, called earmarks, are what Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) describes as the “currency of corruption.” The problem is that, according to the guilty plea of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), Wilkes didn’t do it legally.

Like Abramoff, Wilkes first hit the big time in 1994 with the Republican takeover of Congress. He started by befriending Cunningham as a campaign contributor, steering him what the San Diego Union-Tribune estimates was $71,500 in campaign contributions, before moving on to outright bribery with a $100,000 payment in 2000 and a $525,000 mortgage payment in 2004, according to Cunningham. In exchange, Cunningham says he steered Wilkes his first contract for $1 million in 1997, starting a bonanza for Wilkes that would eventually reach $80 million in defense contracts.

Federal prosecutors allege that one project, which earned Wilkes’ company a profit margin as high as 800 percent, kept getting approved by dismayed Pentagon officials because Cunningham repeatedly “browbeat” them into doing so, in at least one case trying to get an official fired because he had refused.

Wilkes branched out beyond Cunningham in 2002 by hiring the expensive services of the Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying firm at the center of the K Street Project run by former aides to Tom DeLay. The group, which shut its doors in January in the wake of the Abramoff investigations, had a pitch that one lobbyist told the Congressional Quarterly was “either you hire me or DeLay is going to screw you.”

Wilkes success in the earmark business helped him net a $1.5 million home in California, a $283,000 house in Virginia, a chauffeured Mercedes, yearly retreats to Hawaii and a Hummer with the vanity plate “MIPR ME”–Military Interdepartmental Purchase Requests, i.e. defense earmarks. He has yet to be formally charged, but prosecutors say their investigation is continuing.

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Conor Kenny is the editor of Congresspedia.org, a collaborative online citizen's encyclopedia on Congress. He is also a former money in politics investigative researcher for Public Citizen.

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