San Diego Union Tribune

February 25, 2006

One-time wunderkind could get 11-year term

By Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Eight months ago, Mitchell Wade was a secretive wunderkind with a multimillion-dollar portfolio of defense contracts that he had assembled from scratch in little more than two years. If all had gone as planned, he would have sold off his young empire by now and walked away with $100 million.

Instead, the once-ambitious 46-year-old was in U.S. District Court yesterday pleading guilty to charges that could put him behind bars for up to 11 years. It was the culmination of an eight-month free-fall that paralleled that of his co-conspirator and one-time friend, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Cunningham, a Vietnam War hero who could have waltzed to re-election as long as he wanted, at first denied any special relationship with Wade. Then he conceded that although they had met as congressman and defense contractor, they had become close friends. More recently, he acknowledged they had in fact become partners in crime.

While Cunningham's rise and fall have been highly visible, Wade's roller-coaster ride has been shrouded in secrecy. Even those who worked with him said they knew little about his personal life.

He refused to release a biography. Perhaps he was concerned that it would reveal a rather pedestrian past, as the Washington-born son of an executive at a wrought-iron company.

He graduated from American University, served in the Naval Reserve and found work as a midlevel bureaucrat at the Pentagon.

Then he started MZM Inc., working out of his home. His employees knew little about him. Few were aware that the company's name came from the initials of Wade's three children, Matthew, Zachary and Morgan.

Shortly after he began raking in defense contracts with Cunningham's help in 2002, Wade bought a $3.26 million, six-bedroom mansion in Washington's prestigious Kalorama neighborhood. He had courtside seats for Washington Wizards basketball games.

His wife, Christiane, ran a charity out of the MZM headquarters. He forced employees to attend fundraisers and contribute to one of his pet charities, the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, they said.

He was patriotic. But some who worked closely with him said they were bothered by a sense that he wrapped himself in the flag only to pursue his real passion – cashing in on defense contracts.

Regardless of his motives, many agreed that he was brilliant in his manipulation of the defense procurement process and campaign finance system.

In retrospect, “creative” might have been a better word.

For a few golden years, Wade seemed to be an all-American success, a tough, talented, up-by-the-bootstraps entrepreneur whose company became a rocket fueled by determination, talent and an intuitive feel for the marketplace.

But as U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein said yesterday after Wade had been brought low, Wade crafted his success not by channeling hard work and visionary persistence, but buying influence and corrupting insiders.

That corruption centered on Cunningham but went far beyond. He lured Pentagon employees, and flouted campaign finance laws intended to prevent the buying and selling of political influence.

As soon as Wade's 2003 purchase of Cunningham's Del Mar-area home was disclosed, he quietly began giving the government all the information he had on Cunningham. Wade's strategy was to portray himself as a fly caught in the web of an avaricious congressman.

He hoped for leniency from the court.

Wade's court date yesterday was his first public appearance since the scandal erupted in June. He was somber, subdued and contrite.

Cunningham and Wade have now both pleaded guilty to their crimes. Only when they are sentenced will it be clear who the criminal justice system decides was the spider and who was the fly.

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