Man in the Middle

During World War II, the Royal Hawaiian, a grand pink palace on Waikiki Beach, was reserved mainly for officers and men in the U.S. Navy's Submarine Service. It was understood that the sailors who took the greatest risks--about a quarter of the submariners never came back--deserved to be pampered while they waited to go back out on war patrols. More recently, the most frequent guest in the Royal Hawaiian's tony King Kamehameha Suite was a man with close ties to the military who also took risks, though of a different kind.

Brent Wilkes has flown in a private Gulfstream jet, lived in a huge house (once occupied by former San Diego Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries) in a gated community, smoked expensive cigars on the best golf courses and sponsored good works and charities, like the "Tribute to Heroes Gala," which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a children's hospital and a military charity called the Air Warrior Courage Foundation.

What paved the road to riches and beneficence for Wilkes? Once a lowly CPA in southern California, Wilkes became a fabulously successful defense contractor. He carefully cultivated friends in high places, personally handing out some $800,000 in campaign contributions, not counting the donations of a political action committee controlled by his company. He was a Republican "Pioneer," which means he raised at least $100,000 for the GOP. And he has long been known for showering favors on congressmen and national-security officials, playing poker with them at fancy Washington hotels and flying them in a jet he partly owned.

There is nothing unusual or illegal about a defense contractor with an open checkbook for campaign fund-raisers and seats to fill on a corporate jet. But federal prosecutors want to find out more about how Wilkes tapped into what may be one of Washington's sweetest post-9/11 honey pots--secret defense and intelligence contracts that are often awarded without competitive bids or oversight but with plenty of congressional meddling. Wilkes appears to be at the center of a Washington scandal that has the potential to shake Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

Wilkes has protested his innocence, and indeed, his friends say he appears cheerful and confident he will be vindicated. But his lawyers have confirmed that he is the man identified as "Co-conspirator No. 1" in the charges against former congressman Randy (Duke) Cunningham, the former Navy air ace who pleaded guilty to taking bribes. In one prosecution document, "Co-conspirator No. 1" agreed to give Cunningham $525,000 in return for $6 million in government contracts. Wilkes is also a close friend of one of the more colorful characters to fall from a top government job, Kyle (Dusty) Foggo, the former executive director of the CIA who resigned three weeks ago, just before his house and office were raided by federal agents. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, high-school classmates Wilkes and Foggo served as best men at each other's weddings, named their sons after each other and shared a wine locker at Washington's Capital Grille restaurant, a favorite lobbyists' hangout.

According to Foggo's lawyer, Bill Hundley, the Feds are operating on the theory that Foggo helped Wilkes get CIA contracts in return for Wilkes's paying for vacation trips for Foggo. According to Hundley, Foggo claims that he paid for some of the trips before Wilkes became a wealthy contractor, though he concedes Wilkes may have picked up the tab later on. The details of how Wilkes procured contracts remain murky, but the Feds appear to be particularly interested in contracts that seemingly offered little or dubious value for high prices. Wilkes's lawyers have repeatedly denied that he engaged in any wrongdoing.

In one case, described in prosecution documents, a Wilkes company was awarded a $9.7 million contract to electronically scan Panama Canal Zone documents dating back a century to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, even though the Pentagon reportedly wanted to use the money for more-urgent projects. Wilkes allegedly lobbied Cunningham to press the Pentagon to award the contract anyway.

According to published reports and congressional and law-enforcement sources who did not want to be identified discussing a sensitive investigation, the Feds are also reviewing Wilkes's ties to other powerful House leaders. Former GOP majority leader Tom DeLay, Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter and Appropriations Committee chairman Jerry Lewis all reportedly had dealings with Wilkes. None has been accused of any wrongdoing; a spokesman for Lewis said the congressman had not seen Wilkes for 10 years. Hunter's spokesman said his boss urged the Pentagon to ignore congressional pressure on contracting, and DeLay's lawyer had no immediate comment.

Wilkes himself is said to be a bluff man who likes to burst into show tunes and shout out expressions like "boom shaka-laka," "God loves a working man" and "Yeah, baby!" after the Austin Powers movies. Though he owns custom-made suits, he generally prefers khakis and golf shirts. A former linebacker, he is said to be tough and unyielding, not the sort to easily crack under the pressure of prosecutors. Raised as a Mormon, he is described by acquaintances as a loyal friend who is very close to his children.

His life is getting lonelier. He has been dropped by charities; his office building is for sale; his federal contracts are drying up. Once a ubiquitous figure in San Diego politics, Wilkes might as well have ceased to exist. Former San Diego congressman Brian Bilbray, a Republican who was in the House until 2001 before retiring to become a lobbyist, is running for Duke Cunningham's vacated seat. Bilbray told NEWSWEEK, "I may have met Brent once or twice, but I really do not remember." Bilbray did discover that Wilkes had donated $7,000 to his campaigns, but the candidate has given the money to charity. "I wouldn't know Wilkes if I saw him in the street," said Bilbray.