The New York Times was able to do something that federal investigators have been having trouble doing – get key Republican Congress of Corruption money man, Brent Wilkes to speak on the record. In an exclusive interview published today Wilkes tells the story of his life in the world of “transactional lobbying.”
Wilkes instructor in the ways of the Republican congress was former San Diego congressman Bill Lowery. According to Wilkes, Lowery taught him how to “grease palms” in congress. His first class with Lowery was in 1992, when Wilkes was just starting and Lowery was still a member of congress. Wilkes had a business pitch and ten envelopes each containing a check for $10,000.
Mr. Wilkes had set up separate meetings with the lawmakers hoping to win a government contract, and he planned to punctuate each pitch with a campaign donation. But his hometown congressman, Representative Bill Lowery of San Diego, a Republican, told him that presenting the checks during the sessions was not how things were done, Mr. Wilkes recalled.
Instead, Mr. Wilkes said, Mr. Lowery taught him the right way to do it: hand over the envelope in the hallway outside the suite, at least a few feet away.
Wilkes learned quickly that prominent Republican congressman were easily swayed by envelopes filled with money.
Mr. Wilkes described the appropriations process as little more than a shakedown. He said that lobbyists close to the committee members unceasingly demanded campaign contributions from entrepreneurs like him. Mr. Wilkes and his associates have given more than $706,000 to federal campaigns since 1997, according to public records, and he said he had brought in more as a fund-raiser. Since 2000, Mr. Wilkes’s principal company has received about $100 million in federal contracts.
Wilkes most publicized congressional connection was convicted Republican felon Randy “Duke” Cunningham, to whom Wilkes provided over $500,000 in bribes (not to be confused with the $706,000 noted above), but the member of congress with the most to lose in the on-going Wilkes’ investigation is Jerry Lewis (CA-41). Lewis’ relationship with Wilkes was facilitated by Bill Lowery, whose lobbying firm is virtually based on its relationship to the powerful Lewis and the earmarks he controls.
Here’s how Wilkes describes that relationship:
“Lowery would always say, ‘It is a two-part deal,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘Jerry will make the request. Jerry will carry the vote. Jerry will have plenty of time for this. If you don’t want to make the contributions, chair the fund-raising event, you will get left behind.’ ”
Lewis continues to try and distance himself from Wilkes, but Wilkes has the goods on both Lewis and Lowery.
In recent months, Mr. Lewis has said that he barely knew Mr. Wilkes and that he did not remember seeing him in nearly a decade. But Mr. Wilkes says their relationship was closer than that.
Ever since they went on a scuba-diving trip together in 1993, he said, Mr. Lewis had referred to him as his “diving buddy.” They occasionally dined together or met at political functions, Mr. Wilkes said. At a Las Vegas fund-raiser in April 2005, Mr. Wilkes said, Mr. Lewis greeted him as “Brento” and hugged him as Mr. Wilkes surprised the lawmaker with $25,000 in campaign contributions.
As he grew more confident, Mr. Wilkes said, he often considered dropping Mr. Lowery, whose fees had escalated to $25,000 a month by 2005, from $2,500. But Mr. Wilkes said Mr. Lowery threatened to block future projects if their relationship ended. Mr. Wilkes said Mr. Lowery had warned several times that doing so could prompt Mr. Lewis to cut off earmarks, saying, “You don’t want me telling those guys on the committee that you are moving on without me.” That meant, Mr. Wilkes said, “I’d be out of business.”
Brent Wilkes bought lots of members of congress. Jerry Lewis is the one with the highest profile, but Wilkes is also closely associated with John Doolittle (CA-4) and Duncan Hunter (CA-52). If Wilkes decides to break his silence with the feds, Duke Cunningham is going to have some company in jail.