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Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008 | When federal investigators in San Diego launched their bribery investigation of Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, they caught a lucky break almost right away. Mitchell Wade, one of the defense contractors who had been bribing the congressman, offered to come clean and help the government with its investigation.

Cunningham’s corruption was so brazen that he might have wound up in prison eventually, but Wade made it happen much, much faster. Within months, the Rancho Santa Fe Republican pleaded guilty, tearfully announced his resignation, and was on his way to prison, where he stewed over the depths of Wade’s betrayal. “Wade is the absolute devil,” Cunningham wrote in a letter from prison, “and his lawyer is trying to save his donkey.”

Now it’s Wade’s turn to be judged. The 45-year-old is scheduled for sentencing next week (Dec. 15th) for lavishing Cunningham with $1.8 million in bribes, including a yacht, a used Rolls-Royce, antiques, and the purchase of the congressman’s Del Mar home for an inflated price. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Wade faces up to 11 years in prison. However, in return for the extraordinary cooperation he provided the government, Wade is asking for an extraordinarily light sentence: a year of home detention and a $250,000 fine.

Prosecutors don’t dispute that Wade was very helpful, but they believe four years in prison and a “significant fine” is a more fitting punishment for what they called “mammoth acts of corruption.” A four-year sentence would match the reduced penalty a judge in Washington imposed on lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who also spilled the beans and helped convict 10 people, including former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). In sentencing Wade, District Judge Ricardo Urbina must strike a difficult balance between rewarding the man’s good actions and punishing his bad ones.

By any measure, Wade’s cooperation was exceptional. Over the course of 23 government debriefings, he provided an unsparing, insider’s account of corruption, and backed it up with a searchable, electronic database of 150,000 documents. “The responsiveness and thoroughness” of Wade and his $2 million legal team at WilmerHale “made us feel as if we had our private law firm,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Forge wrote in a letter to Judge Urbina.

It was Wade who handed over the most infamous evidence of Cunningham’s corruption — the “bribe menu.” Prosecutors were incredulous when Wade related that Cunningham had pulled out a piece of congressional stationery and wrote out a price list for increasing levels of government contracts. When his attorneys produced the document, Forge said that the investigative team never seriously doubted Wade again.

Wade’s cooperation didn’t stop with Cunningham. He helped secure the convictions of others, including two of his employees. Wade provided damaging evidence last year at the bribery trial of his former boss, Poway defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who is now serving 12 years in prison. Wade also told what he knew about Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, the former executive director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Wilkes’ best friend since their boyhood in Chula Vista. Foggo is being sentenced next month for steering classified contracts to Wilkes’ company.

A sentencing memo filed by Wade’s attorneys says he also aided the government in its investigation of “at least five other members of Congress” under investigation for “corruption similar to that of Mr. Cunningham.” According to sources with knowledge of the investigation, these five include Sen. Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii), Rep. Allan Mollahan (D-W.Va.), Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), outgoing Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), and former Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla). It’s unclear how useful Wade’s information was; none of the five have been charged with any wrongdoing. Prosecutors also say Wade helped in a “large and important corruption investigation,” another case that also hasn’t resulted in any charges.

As extraordinary as Wade’s cooperation was, his corruption was equally breathtaking. It was the staggering scale of Wade’s bribes that helped make Cunningham the most corrupt congressman on record. And Wade not only bribed Cunningham, he also made $78,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Reps. Harris and Goode. (Wade was fined $1 million by the Federal Election Commission, the second-largest fine in its history.) And he greased the wheels with job offers and other goodies in the Defense Department to ensure favorable treatment for his company, MZM Inc.

The bribes were richly rewarded. Cunningham used his positions on the powerful Defense appropriations subcommittee and the House intelligence committee to steer lucrative contracts to Wade’s firm, MZM Inc. Over three years, MZM was awarded more than $150 million in government contracts, meaning that taxpayers were covering the cost of the bribes and enriching the briber. “Mitchell Wade’s greed, corruption, and disdain for the rules that bind honest citizens — be they government contractors, officials, or private individuals — is staggering,” prosecutors noted in a court filing. “In the process, Wade became a very wealthy man.”

It was Copley News Service reporter Marcus Stern who halted Wade’s ascent in June 2005 by exposing his corruption.

In a letter to Judge Urbina, Wade wrote that he “lost sight of the concepts of integrity and fair play” and started cutting corners to get ahead. “I now realize that it was my pride, ego and desire for power that led me down this terrible path,” he wrote. Wade has lost his company, his reputation, and his marriage — although prosecutors point out that he hasn’t lost his wealth. A few former MZM employees told me they aren’t so sure that Wade has learned his lesson.

Their old boss may have stopped trading favors with members of Congress, but in the Justice Department, he found a new partner eager to swap favors with him instead.

Seth Hetten is a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author. You can e-mail him at seth@sethhettena.com with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.

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