San Diego Union Tribune

May 28, 2006

Defense contractor's house of cards

Poker parties a window on way he curried favor


Brent Wilkes

Swirling with liquor, cigar smoke, bawdy jokes and spirited hands of poker, the gatherings were like an all-American night out with the boys.

But the parties – held for more than a decade in posh suites at the luxurious Watergate and Grand Westin hotels in Washington, D.C. – were anything but small-town Americana.

Participants included CIA agents, lobbyists, defense contractors and, occasionally, staffers and members of Congress. The cigars included the best that could be bought from Fidel Castro's Cuba. Some of the players arrived in Mercedes-Benz limousines hired by the host, Poway defense contractor Brent Wilkes.

The poker games provide a window into the way Wilkes befriended powerful people, including former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who could help him get millions of dollars in federal contracts. Because of published reports that the hotel suites were sometimes visited by prostitutes – which Wilkes heatedly denies – the bribery scandal is now known in some circles as “Hookergate.”

Most of the people familiar with Wilkes' attempts to win contracts refused to let their names be used in this article. Some feared being drawn into the widening corruption investigation. Others worried they would jeopardize their jobs by making public comments.

But through interviews over several months with more than a dozen sources – former friends and business associates of Wilkes', people close to the Cunningham corruption case and people within the intelligence community – it's possible to piece together a look at Wilkes' activities, including the now-famous poker games.

Some of the CIA officers and congressional staffers Wilkes played poker with by night were the people he met with by day as he pursued government contracts.

Cunningham, for example, relished the good times, took more than $630,000 in bribes from Wilkes, inserted multimillion-dollar items into legislation to benefit Wilkes and then bullied Pentagon bureaucrats into favoring Wilkes over competing contractors, according to federal prosecutors.

In recent years, Wilkes was particularly interested in CIA contracts.

He was negotiating last year for a proposed project to provide clandestine air-transport services for the CIA, even though he had little experience in transportation, according to several sources close to the intelligence community. The negotiations – arranged with the help of Wilkes' poker-playing friend at the CIA, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo – fell through after Wilkes was identified as a co-conspirator in the Cunningham bribery case.

Wilkes, 52, hasn't been charged with a crime. But some of the people involved in his poker games have felt the heat of the bribery scandal.

Cunningham is in prison. Foggo was recently forced out of his No. 3 position at the CIA. And Shirlington Limousine Service, which often provided transportation for party guests, is the subject of a federal investigation examining whether it also brought prostitutes to the hotel suites.

Through their lawyers, Foggo and Shirlington deny any wrongdoing.


Poker-playing teens

Wilkes and Foggo began their weekly poker games when they were students at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, even though gambling is proscribed by the Mormon church, in which Wilkes was raised.

By the time the pair were in their 20s, the poker parties featured cigars, alcohol and, occasionally, miniskirted women serving food and drinks, say three former friends who attended the parties.

Foggo, who was then a San Diego police officer, would unstrap his gun and put it on the table, according to one of the friends.

The games continued after 1982, when Foggo landed a CIA assignment to Honduras and Wilkes began accompanying lawmakers on trips to visit the Contra rebels, who were seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

During their periodic visits to San Diego, Foggo and Wilkes – who had temporarily moved to Washington, D.C. – would play poker and boast about their work for the Contras, even though Foggo was still officially undercover, say a number of people who knew Foggo at the time.

The poker games moved to Washington in the 1990s, when Wilkes began pursuing contracts on Capitol Hill for his flagship company, ADCS Inc.

During his frequent trips to Washington, Wilkes rented a three-bedroom hospitality suite on the sixth or seventh floor of the Watergate Hotel, which adjoins the office complex made famous by the Nixon administration's political-spying scandal of the early 1970s. During Wilkes' stays at the Watergate, Monica Lewinsky, a key figure in the impeachment of President Clinton, lived there in a suite her family rented.

Wilkes' suite was well-situated. One of his friends recalled a view across the Potomac to Virginia, just upriver from the Pentagon, which Wilkes periodically visited while vying for contracts. And it was just a 15-minute drive from the Capital Grille, a wood-paneled hangout for Republican lawyers and lobbyists. Wilkes and Foggo spent so much time at the Capital Grille – one of Cunningham's favorite eateries – that they maintained wine lockers there.

At some point in the late 1990s, Wilkes moved from the Watergate to the Grand Westin.

Wilkes would typically fly to Washington from San Diego on a Sunday or Monday and stay until Thursday or Friday. Before he returned to San Diego, he would pack up his clothes and bottles of scotch, wine and whiskey from his poker parties and move them to a hotel storage room until his return, according to a former business associate.

Wilkes was a big tipper, ensuring the loyalty of everyone from the doorman to the bartender to the porters who helped pack and store his belongings.

“He took care of them, and they took care of him,” the associate said.

Foggo usually attended the parties when he was in town, bringing along friends from the CIA.

Joe Murray, a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution  who attended a party in 1994, wrote about how eagerly one of the CIA officers accepted a Cuban cigar from him.

“You know, of course, this is considered contraband,” the CIA officer told Murray. “But you've done the right thing as a good citizen. You've turned it in to the proper government agency. Be assured that very shortly it will be destroyed by fire.”

One of the CIA officers sitting at the table that night was Brant Bassett, nicknamed “Nine Fingers” because he was missing part of a digit. Bassett, who graduated from Escondido High School, had served in CIA postings in Mexico and Germany.

After Bassett left the CIA, Wilkes hired him as a consultant for a five-day business trip to Germany, according to government travel documents. Bassett, who speaks fluent German, was paid $5,000 to assist Wilkes in a business deal, said an intelligence official familiar with the trip.

Weeks later, Bassett joined the staff of the House Intelligence Committee under then-Rep. Porter Goss. Intelligence officials say Bassett helped persuade Goss to promote Foggo to executive director after Goss was appointed to head the CIA in 2004.

The poker games also occasionally included staffers and lawmakers on the House Intelligence, Armed Services and Appropriations committees, said a source familiar with the games.

The source said more than half a dozen current and former lawmakers showed up at the Watergate at one time or another, though some came to talk with Wilkes rather than play poker.

In 1994, then-Rep. Charlie Wilson, a Texas Democrat who was a strong backer of CIA operations in Soviet-held Afghanistan and a member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, attended a couple of games, including the one Murray wrote about.

Wilson once showed up with a sackful of “party favors,” including guns from the former Soviet Union and China as well as fake Mont Blanc pens that were actually camouflaged weapons, loaded with a single .32-caliber cartridge. Wilson confirms reports from Murray and a Wilkes business associate that he cheerfully distributed the little guns among the poker players.

“It was absolutely fun and games,” Wilson told The San Diego Union-Tribune.  “I think Brent liked to hang out with CIA guys.”

Wilson says Wilkes discussed his attempts to gain government contracts, “but he never offered me a bribe, even though I was on the same committee as Duke Cunningham. I never figured out what his business was with Duke.”


A powerful visitor

Cunningham was one of the most influential visitors to the poker games, thanks to his position on both the House Appropriations and Intelligence committees. The congressman sometimes regaled the CIA officers with tales about his days as a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam, said one of Wilkes' former business associates.

According to two former Wilkes associates, Cunningham used his dual position to help Wilkes gain contracts from the CIA's “black budget” after the Pentagon began criticizing some of the work Wilkes was doing for the Defense Department. Unlike most Pentagon contracts, contracts in the black budget are shielded from public scrutiny.

The House Intelligence Committee is currently investigating intelligence contracts Cunningham helped arrange, and the FBI has asked to study the committee's files.

FBI investigators also are probing whether Cunningham's visits to the Watergate involved more than poker.

Mitchell Wade, a former defense contractor and Wilkes associate who pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy in connection with the Cunningham bribery case, told investigators that Wilkes provided prostitutes for Cunningham at the Watergate, a source close to the investigation said. Wilkes strongly denies the charge. Wade is cooperating with authorities while awaiting sentencing.

Wilkes' first known contract with the CIA was in 2003. Worth several million dollars, the contract went to one of Wilkes' companies, Archer Logistics, to sell water and first-aid supplies to CIA operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though Archer Logistics was a new company with no known logistics experience.

The contract was awarded through the CIA's office in Frankfurt, Germany, when Foggo was working there, overseeing procurements for the Middle East and Europe.

“Dusty might have awarded the contract to Archer, but he just doesn't remember,” said his attorney, William Hundley.

Wilkes later sought a much bigger contract, to provide clandestine air transportation for the CIA's worldwide operations, according to sources close to the intelligence community. Foggo is said to have greeted Wilkes at the doors of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and signed him in at the security desk when he arrived for his negotiations.

Even though Wilkes had little experience in air transport, he was close to getting the contract, the sources said, but the negotiations fell apart after he was linked to the Cunningham scandal.

Laura Rozen, senior correspondent for American Prospect  magazine, wrote that a well-placed intelligence source told her the contract was worth “a few hundred million dollars.”

The CIA declined to discuss Wilkes' business dealings with the agency.

“Since the Inspector General's Office may be looking into these matters, it would be inappropriate to comment,” CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.

In a previous statement, CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyck said Foggo, 51, maintains that “government contracts for which he was responsible were properly awarded and administered.”

She added that if Foggo “attended occasional card games with friends over the years, Mr. Foggo insists they were that and nothing more.”

Dean Calbreath: (619) 293-1891;

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