Swirling with liquor, cigar smoke, bawdy jokes and spirited hands
of poker, the gatherings were like an all-American night out with the
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
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
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
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
Through their lawyers, Foggo and Shirlington deny any wrongdoing.
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
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
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
“He took care of them, and they took care of him,” the associate
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
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
“Since the Inspector General's Office may be looking into these
matters, it would be inappropriate to comment,” CIA spokesman Paul
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
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