Monday, July 24, 2006

Cunningham Scandal: Rep. Harris Under Investigation, Guilty Plea From MZM Employee

As Jim Stratton reported last week in the Orlando Sentinel, federal investigators recently questioned the former top political aide to Florida Congresswoman Katherine Harris about her relationship with defense contractor Mitch Wade, one of the men who bribed former congressman Duke Cunningham. The report signals that the federal investigation into the aftermath of the Duke Cunningham scandal has turned its sights on Harris.

Duke Cunningham's guilty plea to bribery and other charges last November signaled the beginning, not end, of a widespread federal investigation into possible corruption by members of Congress and government contractors. As prosecutors delved into the dealings of the men who bribed Cunningham, several aspects of their relationships with other members of Congress emerged which were eerily similar to their relationship with Cunningham, including massive campaign contributions from the contractors to the congressmembers and congressional earmarks from the members to the government contractors.

One such member was Katherine Harris.

At the time he pleaded guilty to bribery and corruption charges this past February, Wade also pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to Rep. Harris and Virginia Congressman Virgil Wade. Wade and his employees had given $50,000 to Harris, $32,000 of which Wade illegally funneled through his employees to skirt federal contribution limits. Just as Cunningham rewarded Wade and fellow defense contractor Brent Wilkes for their campaign contributions and outright bribery, Harris had attempted to earmark $10 million for Wade's company MZM.

At one point, Wade and Harris had dinner in a posh D.C. restaurant. At the dinner, Wade offered to host a fundraiser for Harris's campaign for U.S. Senate. (This on top of the $50k she'd already received from MZM.) A few weeks later, Harris amended the list of earmarks she had requested from House leadership to include the $10 million for Wade. The quid pro quo nature of the Wade/Harris dealings raised the strong possibility of bribery.

Harris's explanation of these circumstances to her staff was so changing and inconsistent that many members of her staff resigned. One such staffer, top political strategist Ed Rollins, thought the circumstances sufficiently damning to recommend that Harris get a lawyer. Rollins was the subject of the federal interview mentioned earlier. Rollins, a longtime GOP operative, said he assumed more interviews with other Harris staffers would be forthcoming.

In related news, Richard Berglund, a former employee for Mitch Wade at his defense contracting firm MZM, pleaded guilty last Friday to making illegal campaign contributions to Harris, as reported in the St. Petersburg Times.

In short, the Cunningham fallout has only just begun. Three of the four co-conspirators named by both Cunningham and Wade in their guilty pleas remain unindicted, including big kahuna Brent Wilkes.

Nor is Harris the sole member of Congress who received $50,000 or more in campaign contributions from Wade and Wilkes while steering them various government contracts worth tens of millions. In addition to Harris and Cunningham, other members of this group, include Virgil Goode (VA), Jerry Lewis (CA), Duncan Hunter (CA), and John Doolittle (CA). Doolittle alone received upwards of $130,000 from Wilkes and his associates, in turn steering $37 million in federal tax dollars to Wilkes company PerfectWave Technologies.

Stay tuned.

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