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In April 2000, then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham sent his chief of staff to Panama for what the aide described on his travel disclosure form as “education and research.”

Although the cost of the three-day trip taken by Dewitt “Trey” Hardin III — roughly $1,900 — was not remarkable, the timing and sponsor are intriguing.

Hardin traveled to Central America about two weeks before the date on which Cunningham, a California Republican, has said he took his first bribe from defense contractor Brent Wilkes.

It’s unclear what Hardin did in Panama. In an e-mail to the Center, he described the trip as “my visit to a San Diego constituent’s facility in Panama to provide research and education about their work,” which “was taken in my capacity as a congressional staff member.”Wilkes is the founder of ADCS Inc. And it was ADCS that paid for Hardin’s trip, the Center for Public Integrity has discovered.

Hardin said in the e-mail, “I filed the required paperwork with the Clerk of the House of Representatives that discloses details of that travel (i.e., costs, purpose, etc.). I do not have any additional comments to make on this matter.”

Nancy Luque, one of Wilkes’ lawyers, wrote in an e-mail reply to a Center’s request for comment, “I think the trip forms speak for themselves.”

In the federal government’s case against Cunningham, however, there was a Panama-based ADCS contract worth nearly $10 million that drew scrutiny.

ADCS was hired to convert the U.S. military’s paper documents in Panama to digital form. Cunningham was calling Defense Department officials regarding the project behind the scenes. He helped secure funding and characterized Wilkes’ work as paramount to national security, although some of the records reportedly dated back to the 1800s.

In 2005, the motivation for Cunningham’s backing was revealed in the federal indictment that led to the congressman’s resignation: Wilkes had paid him more than $630,000 in bribes from 2000 to 2005. Court documents do not identify Wilkes by name, but one of his lawyers, Michael Lipman, confirmed to USA TODAY that Wilkes is “co-conspirator No. 1” in the case.

In her e-mail to the Center, Luque wrote there is no connection between the Panama trip in 2000 and her client’s alleged bribes to Cunningham “because there were no bribes.”

According to Luque, the federal government’s allegations against Wilkes are based upon “essentially the word of one man who is pleading guilty to (and has been convicted of) crimes that by their very nature show him to be dishonest.”

“The facts are not so self-evident,” said Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. “When these kinds of trips are disclosed, the public and the media want to know what these trips mean.”No staffer has been accused of “knowingly participating in [Cunningham’s] criminal scheme,” according to the U.S. attorney’s sentencing memorandum. But questions remain about Hardin’s trip to Panama.

“A disclosure form should be more inclusive to remove any doubt about the motive of anyone accepting these trips,” said Bill Whitehurst, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who is now on the faculty of Old Dominion University.

According to Cunningham, Hardin was in Panama on official business. The lawmaker certified that he had authorized his chief of staff’s trip in advance and that the travel “would not create the appearance that he/she is using public office for private gain.” Hardin and Cunningham both signed the form.

About two weeks after Hardin’s trip, Wilkes allegedly passed his first bribe to Cunningham. On May 1, 2000, according to Cunningham’s charging and sentencing documents, “co-conspirator No. 1” gave the congressman $100,000, broken into two checks, and began making mortgage payments on Cunningham’s yacht, the Kelly C.

Inspecting the Panama Contract

Wilkes’s contract in Panama caught the eye of the Pentagon’s inspector general in the spring of 2000.

Investigators found that the project had not been sought by the Pentagon, but instead had been prompted by “inquiries from two members of Congress.” They were later identified to reporters as Cunningham and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

The IG’s report said the episode could cause the military to lose “confidence in the fairness of the selection and approval processes.” Little else happened until federal prosecutors began investigating Cunningham in June 2005.

In court records, one heavily redacted section describes how an unnamed Defense Department official found fraudulent invoices for up to $750,000 regarding “scanning projects in Panama and San Diego, Calif.” The official refused to sign the invoices.

Shortly thereafter, the official received a call from Cunningham. The official told investigators that after hearing the explanation regarding the invoices, Cunningham “went extremely cold,” cordially “cut the conversation short” and soon began calling the official’s supervisor to complain.

Records show that Cunningham regularly contacted Pentagon officials about payment to ADCS — even calling one while the official was in Panama — and argued that the scanning project was vital to national security.

Wilkes and the other alleged co-conspirators eventually laid out $2.4 million in bribes for Cunningham who “erected a ‘for sale’ sign upon our nation’s capital,” according to prosecution filings.

The ex-congressman already has begun his prison sentence of eight years and four months. But the investigation is not over yet. The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers have reported that the FBI is looking into whether Wilkes plied Cunningham and other lawmakers with prostitutes. Wilkes’ lawyers deny such allegations.

According to media reports quoting his attorneys, Wilkes is still under investigation by federal prosecutors.Only one of Cunningham’s co-conspirators, Mitchell Wade, the former chief executive officer of defense firm MZM Inc., has been convicted and awaits sentencing.

A couple of California trips

Wilkes’ companies have spent relatively little on congressional travel — about $5,500 over five years. Other than the trip to Panama for Hardin in 2000, Wilkes is connected to two June 2004 trips to San Diego.

Greg Orlando, then legislative director for Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and Damon Nelson, legislative director for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., traveled to California at the expense of another company tied to Wilkes, Perfectwave Technologies. The purpose of the trip, according to their disclosure forms, was “to obtain insights and perspectives on issues pertaining to the development of defense technologies” by companies including Perfectwave and ADCS.

Doolittle already was a fan of Perfectwave’s work in “sound isolation” technology, he told The Sacramento Bee. In a February 2006 interview with the newspaper, the California Republican said he supported an appropriation for the company because it “had tremendous direct military application in the war on terror and I thought that was significant.”

Hardin, Cunningham’s former chief of staff, has gone on to lobby for defense contractors.

In early 2003, he joined NorthPoint Strategies, a firm founded by lobbyist Frank Collins and Patrick McSwain, another of Cunningham’s former top aides. Hardin soon registered to lobby on the coming year’s defense appropriations bill for several contractors, including General Atomics.

On its Web site, NorthPoint describes its key asset as “our staff of experienced former government officials, the relationships borne of those experiences, and the reputation we carry with us as we deliver exceptional value for our clients.” In 2005, the firm was still lobbying for many defense firms.

Before founding NorthPoint with Collins, McSwain lobbied for Wilkes’ company, ADCS Inc., from 1999 to 2000. Mock & McSwain Consulting earned $120,000 in lobbying fees for working on “energy and water appropriations” on behalf of Wilkes’ firm.

In an e-mail to the Center, McSwain wrote that no one at Mock & McSwain ever lobbied Cunningham on behalf of ADCS. McSwain also wrote that he never organized any travel for congressional members or staffers on behalf of the defense contractor.

Beyond what he said in his e-mail to the Center, Hardin met the basic disclosure requirements for his trip to Panama. But the specifics might never be known.

Some say the trip — like other travel without a clearly stated purpose — illustrates the need for more expansive disclosure requirements.

“Sometimes, it can leave an air of corruption where there is no corruption,” said Zelizer of Boston University. “Disclosure on its own is not always satisfying.”

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