Published on Sunday, March 19, 2006 by the San Diego Union-Tribune (California)
Congressman Doolittle, Wife Profited from Cunningham-Linked Contractor
by Dean Calbreath
A week before former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham was sentenced to prison, he stressed to the court that a number of other lawmakers also helped arrange federal funding for the defense contractors who bribed him.
None of the lawmakers Cunningham mentioned by name – Reps. Katherine Harris of Florida, Virgil Goode of Virginia and John Doolittle from the Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay – has been accused of criminal wrongdoing. But each has admitted assisting either Mitchell Wade or Brent Wilkes, co-conspirators in the Cunningham case, at a time when the two businessmen were giving them tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions.
And at least one of the lawmakers, Doolittle, received a direct monetary benefit from those contributions through commissions paid to his wife, Julie.
Acting as her husband's campaign consultant, Julie Doolittle charged his campaign and his Superior California Political Action Committee a 15 percent commission on any contribution she helped bring in.
As a member of two key committees in the House – Appropriations and Administration – Doolittle is well-positioned to help contractors gain funding through congressional earmarks. Between 2002 and 2005, Wilkes and his associates and lobbyists gave Doolittle's campaign and political action committee $118,000, more than they gave any other politician, including Cunningham.
Calculations based on federal and state campaign records suggest that Doolittle's wife received at least $14,400 of that money in commissions. Meanwhile, Doolittle helped Wilkes get at least $37 million in government contracts.
San Diego attorney Stanley Zubel, who heads Californians for a Cleaner Congress, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said Julie Doolittle's commissions raise troubling questions about whether the congressman personally benefited from his support of Wilkes' projects.
“For all practical purposes, when someone's wife earns money, then he earns money, especially in a community-property state like California,” Zubel said. “He can't separate this out and say, 'This is my wife's money.' If she's getting a benefit, he's getting a benefit.”
Doolittle's office defended the arrangement.
In a prepared statement, Richard Robinson, Doolittle's chief of staff, said Julie Doolittle's consulting firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, “provides marketing, event planning, fundraising and related services to several clients including Congressman Doolittle's Superior California Leadership PAC.”
Neither Doolittle nor his wife would comment for this story.
Critics question how much fundraising Julie Doolittle needed to do for the campaign.
“After several years on the Appropriations Committee, John Doolittle has reached the point in his career where fundraising should be on autopilot,” said Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that monitors campaign fundraising. “He shouldn't have to rely on his wife or anyone else to keep his coffers full.”
A search by The San Diego Union-Tribune yielded only three other clients of Julie Doolittle's firm:
One was Greenberg Traurig, the lobbying firm that employed Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax-evasion charges. The second was Abramoff's Washington restaurant, Signatures. The third was the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, founded by Ed Buckham, one-time chief of staff for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The Korean group, which lobbied for improved U.S.-Korean relations, was based at the headquarters of Buckham's Alexander Strategy Group, which dissolved in January because of negative publicity over its ties to Abramoff. Wilkes also was an Alexander Strategy client.
Robinson said Julie Doolittle had other clients. But he refused to provide their names “out of respect for the privacy of the clients.”
Prosecutors in the Abramoff investigation have subpoenaed Julie Doolittle for information regarding her work for Abramoff's firm, which included planning fundraising events for his charity, the Capital Athletics Foundation. Records released by the Senate show that Abramoff used the foundation – whose official purpose was to raise money for underprivileged children – to bankroll some of his lobbying efforts.
An unlisted business
Julie Doolittle launched Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions in March 2001, two months after her husband was named to the Appropriations Committee.
The business, which is based at the couple's home in Oakton, Va., has no phone listing or Web site. The firm has no known employees other than Julie Doolittle. The congressman's office would not specify what previous fundraising experience she had.
Within months of its opening, the firm was receiving commissions from her husband's campaign. Within the next two years, it was planning fundraising events for Abramoff and handling bookkeeping for the Korean lobbying group in Buckham's office suite, where DeLay's wife, Christine, also was working.
Federal and state campaign records show that Julie Doolittle has received nearly $180,000 in commissions from her husband's political fundraising since late 2001.
A number of other politicians use their spouses as campaign consultants, including Rep. Bob Filner of Chula Vista. The practice is legal as long as the spouse is doing legitimate campaign work at a fair market price.
Zubel, who has publicly criticized Filner's hiring of his wife, Jane, notes that there are significant differences between Jane Filner and Julie Doolittle.
Jane Filner is paid a salary rather than a commission, meaning there is no direct connection between her earnings and the amount of contributions coming in. She also has had previous campaign experience, as executive director of the Democrats' 2000 political action committee.
“The question you have to ask is whether a person has enough fundraising experience, training and skill so that an independent person – not connected through a spousal relationship – would hire them as a fundraiser,” Zubel said. “In those terms, Jane Filner probably has a bit more legitimacy in terms of being a fundraiser.”
Losing federal contracts
Julie Doolittle was working at Buckham's offices in 2002 when Buckham introduced Brent Wilkes to her husband. Federal contracts for his flagship company, ADCS Inc., were drying up, partly because the Pentagon had been telling Congress it had little need for the company's document-scanning technology. So Wilkes was trying to get funding for two new businesses.
One was tied to the 2002 anthrax scare, when tainted letters were sent to Capitol Hill. Wilkes' idea was to have all Capitol Hill mail rerouted to a site in the Midwest, where ADCS employees wearing protective suits would scan it into computers and then e-mail it back to Washington.
He called his proposed solution MailSafe – similar to the names of several anti-anthrax companies launched at that time – and began vying for federal contracts, even though the company had little to its name other than a rudimentary Web site.
The House Administration Committee, on which Doolittle sat, oversees the congressional mail system. Doolittle told his colleagues about MailSafe and introduced them to Wilkes, but the project never got off the ground.
Wilkes had more success with PerfectWave, which offered a technology that could limit the amount of background noise transmitted over electronic communications. Doolittle has publicly admitted that he helped Wilkes get the $37 million in federal contracts for PerfectWave through the “earmark” process, in which legislators pencil in funding for specific projects.
In October 2002, as Doolittle pushed for funding for PerfectWave, Wilkes and his associates donated $7,000 to his campaign and $10,000 to his political action committee. Julie Doolittle made $1,500 from Wilkes' contributions.
Wilkes continued to contribute heavily to Doolittle through 2005, as he pressed the Appropriations Committee for earmarks for three other ventures: Optimum Composite Design, Pure Aqua Technologies and Acoustical Communications Systems. He got some earmarks, but there is no evidence that Doolittle was involved.
In November 2003, Wilkes held a fundraising dinner for Doolittle at ADCS' headquarters in Poway that was catered by Wilkes' wife, Regina, who ran a catering company based in the corporate cafeteria. The 15 guests on Wilkes' invitation were all ADCS employees or partners on projects Wilkes was trying to get funded, together with their spouses.
Over the next four months, members of the group gave a total of $50,000 to Doolittle's political action committee.
Federal and state election records show that Julie Doolittle claimed commissions on most of those contributions, even though there is no evidence that she planned the fundraising dinner or encouraged the contributors to donate to her husband.
No expenses related to the dinner are reflected on John Doolittle's financial records.
Robinson, his chief of staff, refused to answer questions about that particular dinner. But in a prepared statement, he said Julie Doolittle had helped “initiate, plan and perform other administrative duties” for two dinners in the San Diego area, for which she claimed her standard fundraising commission.
Las Vegas fundraiser
John Doolittle's last known meeting with Wilkes came in May 2004, when Wilkes flew to Las Vegas to attend a fundraiser for the congressman's political action committee. Wilkes used his corporate jet to bring the keynote speaker, Tom DeLay, and one of DeLay's staffers.
Federal election records show that Julie Doolittle took a 15 percent commission for contributions made during the event at The Venetian hotel-casino, including an estimated $1,650 from the $11,000 donated by Wilkes, ADCS and Karl Gallant, a Buckham employee who was then lobbying on Wilkes' behalf.
Within weeks of the Las Vegas gathering, Wilkes' name surfaced in the Cunningham scandal, and congressional support for his projects dwindled.
Most politicians, including Harris and Goode, eventually returned Wilkes' contributions or donated the money to charity. But Doolittle kept the money, saying the contributions were legal.
In an interview last month with The Sacramento Bee, Doolittle said “the jury is still out” on whether Wilkes did anything illegal in pursuing contracts on Capitol Hill.
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