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Bribe scandal report says panel was used

Times Staff Writer

An internal investigation that the House Intelligence Committee has refused to make public portrays the panel as embarrassingly entangled in the Randy “Duke” Cunningham bribery scandal.

The report, a declassified version of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times, describes the committee as a dysfunctional entity that served as a crossroads for almost every major figure in the ongoing criminal probe by the Justice Department.

The document describes breakdowns in leadership and controls that it says allowed Cunningham -- the former congressman (R-Rancho Santa Fe) who began an eight-year prison term last year for taking bribes and evading taxes -- to use his House position to steer millions of dollars to corrupt contractors.

When the committee’s investigation was completed last year, the Republican-controlled panel would not release the results; now that the committee is controlled by Democrats, it still will not release the findings.

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The report provides the most detailed account to date of how former CIA Executive Director Kyle Dustin “Dusty” Foggo, whose indictment on charges of defrauding the government was recently expanded, allegedly used committee connections to advance his career at the agency.

And the report sheds new light on the roles of senior committee aides, including retired CIA case officer Brant Bassett, who had ties to Cunningham and Foggo as well as to contractors accused of paying the congressman millions of dollars.

Overall, the document provides a penetrating look into how the committee itself became central to the scandal, describing an atmosphere in which senior aides were deeply troubled by Cunningham’s actions but nevertheless complied with his requests out of fear.

But the report and committee members’ ongoing disagreement over whether it should be released also reflect the political currents still swirling around the scandal.

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For all its finger-pointing at staffers, the document fails to address whether other committee members were aware of Cunningham’s abuses or were culpable. For instance, the report avoids any scrutiny of former Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who was chairman of the panel when Cunningham’s most egregious abuses occurred. Goss went on to serve as CIA director, from September 2004 to May 2006.

Democrats complained bitterly a year ago when Republicans blocked release of a declassified version of the final report. But two weeks ago, several Democrats joined Republicans to block the report’s release only to other members of Congress. Five Democrats objected to keeping the report secret.

Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who assumed leadership of the committee after Democrats won control of Congress last fall, said some Democratic members were reluctant to release a document that singled out staff members for criticism.

“My view was that the report was an internal review, principally of staff activity, and that the full report -- with all of the names of staff -- was not intended for dissemination beyond the committee,” Reyes said. “The important thing is that the committee took the review seriously and incorporated changes” designed to prevent future abuses.

Congressional sources said Reyes and other Democrats had initially voted to let other members of Congress see the document, but reversed course after a fierce protest by the panel’s ranking GOP member, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.

“They are so nervous about this report being out,” said one congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Members oppose putting this thing out because you read this and the natural question is: ‘Did you know this, and what did you do about it?’ I don’t think any members wanted that scrutiny.”

The latest vote was prompted by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a critic of the so-called earmarks practice that allows members to slip special funding provisions into broader bills. Earmarks were one way Cunningham steered contracts to associates.

Jamal Ware, a spokesman for Hoekstra, stressed that the investigation found no wrongdoing by staffers or other members, and said the findings were never intended to be released.

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“The classified, internal documents of this committee should have remained just that,” Ware said. “The decision by a member or staff, against a bipartisan vote of the committee, to disclose this information is beyond the pale and raises concerns about trust on the committee.”

The report’s principal author said in an interview that the terms under which he was hired to conduct the investigation prevented him from examining lawmakers’ roles.

“There was an agreement as to what they wanted to look at, and that was not anything that could be looked at under the sun,” said Michael Stern, a former attorney in the House counsel’s office who was hired by the committee to lead the internal probe. “The language did not include the culpability or potential involvement of other members.”

Stern said that the full, 59-page report he prepared a year ago was classified, but that he also provided the committee a 23-page version that had been scrubbed of classified material. The Times obtained the declassified version.

The document says that Cunningham began pressing to fund special projects from the moment he joined the House Intelligence Committee in 2001, and that his demands intensified.

Funding requests

One top committee aide, Michael Meermans, told investigators that “on probably two or three occasions [Cunningham] figuratively put a finger in my forehead and said, ‘You are going to make this into the bill, right?’ ”

The funding requests were repeatedly granted, Meermans said, even though staffers “started smelling something really bad in the program.”

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Meermans and other staffers named in the report declined requests to comment or could not be reached.

Staffers said that Cunningham seemed more focused on who was getting the money than on the merits of the underlying projects, and that they were disturbed by his close ties with contractors who seemed unqualified for the projects they had won.

Aides said they acceded to Cunningham’s demands “to keep him from going nuclear or ballistic” and because they considered him an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee who might retaliate by blocking intelligence committee funding priorities.

Current and former intelligence committee officials said staffers facing such pressure would almost certainly call the issue to the attention of their elected bosses.

Goss does not remember staff ever bringing the issue to his attention, although he felt that Cunningham had become overly partisan for a nonpartisan committee, according to an individual close to Goss. The individual asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

One project, a Pentagon counterintelligence program known as Project Fortress, was being handled by contractor Mitchell Wade, who has since pleaded guilty to paying bribes to Cunningham.

At one point, senior committee aide Michele Lang sent out a staff e-mail describing the program, saying, “HOOAH! Another $5 million of taxpayer money wasted.” By 2005, the funding for Wade had swelled to $25 million.

Even Bassett expressed discomfort with Cunningham’s manipulation of the system. According to the report, Bassett told senior committee staffers that he had “no confidence that Mitch Wade or anybody he was connected with really knew anything about counterintelligence or could do a good job for the U.S. taxpayer in that area.”

Even so, the money continued to be earmarked for Wade’s company, MZM, partly because staffers were intimidated by Cunningham.

A bottle of wine

The report suggests that Cunningham began working more closely with Wade, leading to a rift with Brent Wilkes, another contractor accused of bribing the congressman. In one of the more bizarre events described in the report, Cunningham found himself at the same Washington restaurant as Wilkes in late 2004, and sought to smooth things over by sending a bottle of wine to the contractor’s table. The report says that Bassett witnessed the scene and said Wilkes “told the waiter to take the wine back to Cunningham or to simply pour it out.”

According to the report, Cunningham, in addition to steering money to corrupt contractors, also shared with them classified budget information.

In particular, Wade told a committee aide that he knew “there was an appropriation for the things he had requested Mr. Cunningham support,” according to the report.

The report makes only a glancing reference to Goss, saying that early in his tenure he “would make a point of saying that ‘We don’t do things for constituencies behind the closed doors’ ” of the intelligence committee. But this policy, the report concludes, “tended to atrophy over time.”

The report says senior aides told investigators that they often complied with requests from members without knowing where the requested money would wind up. The report quotes Lang as telling investigators that “a lot of times when we get these [member additions], figuring out what the heck they are ... can be an intelligence thing in and of itself.”

The report also explores the committee connections of others swept up in the Cunningham probe, including Bassett, a senior aide who knew Foggo from their time together at the CIA. Bassett has not been accused of any crime.

Bassett “made a concerted effort to introduce his good friend Foggo to [committee] members and staff,” according to the report, setting up meetings in Washington and arranging for members to visit a CIA logistics center in Frankfurt, Germany, where Foggo was overseeing shipments to CIA locations in the Middle East.

To curry favor among lawmakers, the report says, the two doled out gifts, including plaques bearing empty AK-47 shell casings and rugs emblazoned with “War on Terrorism” logos. The report says Bassett described the gifts as “the little gold stars you give a kid for doing something,” and it criticizes what it calls his improper attempts to influence members.

Largely because of Foggo’s committee connections, Foggo was elevated to the No. 3 job at the agency after Goss became CIA director in 2004. An indictment filed May 10 in U.S. District Court in San Diego accuses Foggo of accepting lavish meals and vacation trips while using his position at the CIA to try to steer more than $100 million in agency funds to Wilkes.

A congressional official said the committee’s findings had been turned over to the Justice Department, which has focused part of its ongoing probe on whether Foggo had aid from lawmakers in steering contracts to Wilkes and other associates.

greg.miller@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Figures in the bribery scandal

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Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham went to prison in 2006 for accepting bribes from defense contractors. Some of his associates are awaiting sentencing; others are facing trial. Here is a glance at the status of the cases:

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Randy “Duke” Cunningham

Pleaded guilty in November 2005 to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in exchange for government contracts. The former congressman is serving an eight-year federal prison term.

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Mitchell Wade

Pleaded guilty in February 2006 to giving Cunningham more than $1 million in bribes in exchange for government contracts, including paying $700,000 above market value for Cunningham’s Del Mar Heights home. A former Navy officer and the founder of MZM Inc., Wade also pleaded guilty to providing favors to Defense officials and to making illegal campaign contributions. He is awaiting sentencing.

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Thomas Kontogiannis

Pleaded guilty in February 2007 to illegally helping finance the congressman’s purchase of a $2.5-million Rancho Santa Fe mansion. The New York financier is awaiting sentencing and is expected to testify in the upcoming trials of his nephew John T. Michael and co-defendant Brent Wilkes.

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Brent Wilkes

Pleaded not guilty this year to charges that he provided Cunningham with prostitutes, vacations, corporate jet travel, limousine service, cash, meals and other items, worth $700,000. The Poway defense contractor also pleaded not guilty to charges connected to more than $100 million in proposed government contracts he allegedly attempted to arrange with his childhood best friend, former top CIA official Dusty Foggo. Wilkes is to be tried this year in San Diego.

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John T. Michael

Kontogiannis’ nephew; pleaded not guilty this year to charges of money laundering and unlawful monetary transactions in the financing of Cunningham’s Rancho Santa Fe home. He is to be tried this year.

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Kyle Dustin “Dusty” Foggo

The former No. 3 official at the CIA and childhood friend of Wilkes; pleaded not guilty this year to charges of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy for allegedly accepting bribes to steer contracts to Wilkes. Prosecutors said Wilkes offered to hire Foggo after he retired from government service. Foggo was appointed to his last CIA post by then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

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Source: Times reporting


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