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Harris unknowingly got illegal donations

Prosecutors say the Florida congresswoman didn't know a contractor, now convicted, arranged 16 tainted checks totaling $32,000 from individuals.

Associated Press
Published February 25, 2006


WASHINGTON - A defense contractor admitted Friday he paid a California congressman more than $1-million in bribes and also acknowledged making illegal campaign contributions to two other members of Congress, one being Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota.

Mitchell Wade pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to conspiring with former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California to bribe the Republican lawmaker with cash, cars and antiques over four years, and to help him evade millions of dollars in tax liability.

In exchange, Cunningham helped bring MZM Inc. of Washington, which Wade started in 1993, more than $150-million in government contracts since 2002.

"I take full responsibility for my actions," Wade told Judge Ricardo Urbina after entering his plea to four corruption charges that carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

Cunningham quit Congress last year after pleading guilty to taking bribes from Wade and others.

Wade, MZM's former president, also admitted making nearly $80,000 in illegal campaign contributions in the names of MZM employees and their spouses to two other members of Congress, identifiable from Federal Election Commission records as Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., and Harris.

"Wade targeted these two members of Congress because he believed that they had the ability to request appropriations funding that would benefit MZM," U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein of Washington said at a news conference.

The lawmakers apparently were unaware the donations were illegal, prosecutors said. Goode and Harris have said they would donate campaign funds to charity in the amount of contributions received from MZM.

"This case demonstrates the perils of a process in which candidates are sometimes asked to determine the intent of a contributor," Harris said in a statement. "I am fully committed to addressing any weaknesses in the law with regard to the exercise of our government and the spirit of democracy."

Harris got $10,000 from the MZM political action committee, and another $32,000 from MZM employees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. The $32,000 came in 16 checks for $2,000 each - 14 of them written on March 23, 2004.

Harris said she contacted those contributors and asked if any wanted their money returned, and none responded.

Wade also admitted his role in a second, separate conspiracy in which he did favors for a Defense Department official, including hiring his son at MZM, and other employees in return for their help in awarding contracts to his company.

The Washington Post has identified the official as William S. Rich Jr., who until 2003 was executive director of the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center in Charlottesville, Va. Rich was later hired by MZM.

Wade is one of four co-conspirators in the plea agreement and sentencing memorandum for Cunningham. The co-conspirators are not named in court papers, but they have been identified elsewhere.

Among Wade's gifts to Cunningham was the purchase of the congressman's California home for a price inflated by $700,000. Cunningham, 64, used the money to move into a $2.55-million, seven-bath mansion in the exclusive San Diego County community of Rancho Santa Fe.

A bribe of a $140,000 in the form of a 42-foot yacht brought Wade an offer of $16-million in contracts, according to Cunningham's sentencing memorandum, which calls for a 10-year prison term.

Wade bought Cunningham $190,000 in antiques over two years from one store alone, records show. The former "Top Gun" flight instructor and Vietnam War flying ace is scheduled to be sentenced March 3 in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

Besides Wade, the three other co-conspirators are Brent Wilkes, founder of San Diego-based ADCS Inc.; New York businessman Thomas Kontogiannis; and John T. Michael, Kontogiannis' nephew.

[Last modified February 25, 2006, 01:35:05]


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