You may have thought that Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) would stop regaling us with tales of his high-living congressional lifestyle now that he’s decided not to run for reelection next year. But you can’t count Duke out so quickly.
Last Friday the Union-Tribune ran a new and admittedly slightly complicated piece on Duke’s high-flying ways.
You may know that under congressional rules, lawmakers can take a flight on a company-owned private jet and reimburse the company in question only at the price of a single first-class commercial air ticket, though of course fare on a private jet is vastly more expensive.
This is a legal and bipartisan practice that is its own special little scandal in itself — of which we’ll say more in a future post.
Now, there’s a defense contractor named Brent Wilkes. He has a company called ADCS Inc. And as you might expect, the operation has been on the Duke gravy train in recent years. In fact, things are going so well that Wilkes also has Group W Advisors, a DC-based lobbying firm. And, yes, perhaps it goes without saying that before Duke’s sugar-daddy Mitchell Wade set up the now-notorious MZM, Inc., he was an employee of ADCS.
As you’ll see in a moment, if nothing else, Wilkes seems to be a true innovator in the vertical integration of the congressional pay-for-play industry.
And as part of that, let’s get to Group W Transportation, Wilkes’ private air carrier.
I’m always a little worried about travelling on planes owned by tiny companies. But if you think that’s bad, Group W only owns one-sixteenth of a plane!
Now, that doesn’t sound too airworthy. And maybe like me, when you first read that, you were thinking you’d end up at 20,000 feet just flying on half a wing or maybe a nose cone. But actually it’s not that bad. Basically Group W owns one-sixteenth of a plane in what amounts to a time-share arrangement like some people do with vacation houses. Group W owned fifty hours a year on a Lear jet. (Recently, they upgraded to an eighth of a plane.)
But here’s where the Duke fun gets started. According to the piece in the Union-Tribune a very large proportion of that time went to ferrying around members of Congress. Just to recap, the idea behind the charter jet reimbursement rule is that some corporation will lend a congressman or congresswoman its jet to get back to Washington or to fly to a fundraiser. But as part of lathering up lawmakers like Duke, Wilkes seems to have set up his own little mini-airline mainly, if not exclusively, to provide coast to coast air taxi service for members of Congress he’s trying to get favors from. As an example, writes the paper, “During one weekend campaign swing in July 2003, DeLay used at least a quarter of Group W’s 50-hour annual allotment on the jet.”
But the most frequent flyer on the friendly skies of Group W was none other than Duke Cunningham.