Dining with the Duke

Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s favorite restaurant was The Capital Grille, a high-end steakhouse six blocks from the Capitol. At day two of the trial of alleged Cunningham briber Brent Wilkes in San Diego, jurors were shown a series of photo exhibits of the Grille’s interior with its faux columns and its “wine kiosk,” a gilded monstrosity that looked something like the ark where you find Torah scrolls in synagogue.

Prosecutors called Clifford Horsfall, a Capital Grille waiter. Horsfall was as disheveled a witness as I’ve ever seen. He showed up unshaven with sunglasses perched on his head in blue jeans and a T-shirt with a pinup girl that read “Cocktails.” He wasn’t classy, but he was a good witness.

  • In the 13 years that he has waited tables at The Capital Grille, Horsfall said he could never remember a congressman ever picking up the tab while dining with a lobbyist.
  • Horsfall never saw anyone take a congressman out to dinner more than defense contractor Brent Wilkes and his ex-compadre, Mitch Wade.
  • Duke’s favorite wine was from Silver Oak Cellars in California, which ran $100 to $150 a bottle.
  • Duke was a “typical congressman” when it came to tipping on the rare occasions he actually paid for his own meals. That means 15 percent.

Another Washington eatery mentioned at the trial was La Colline, a now-defunct French restaurant on Capitol Hill. In 2004, Duke was invited to dine there along with his defense appropriations staffer, Nancy Lifset. Other guests included Jennifer Thompson, a staffer working on the House Armed Services Committee; Erica Stribel, another appropriations staffer; and Defense Appropriations subcommittee staffer Sarah Young and others.

The La Colline event was organized by NorthPoint Strategies, a lobbying firm whose three principals are all former Cunningham chiefs of staff. In an e-mail, NorthPoint said the event wasn’t a fund-raiser but rather a “fun raiser.” Picking up the dinner tab was Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group, a real estate investment trust or REIT. Why an REIT would want to cozy up to defense appropriations staffers wasn’t explained.

The subject of La Colline was very discomfiting to a witness named Frank Collins, Cunningham’s first chief of staff who went on to found NorthPoint. Collins was grilled by Wilkes’ defense attorney, Mark Geragos, about the dinner and he started squirming a bit in the witness box. Things went downhill for him from there. Geragos made him seem like a liar for changing his definition of an earmark.

Before Geragos tore into him, Collins testified that he had warned Duke when the congressman joined the uber-powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that he would suddenly have new best friends show up at his doorstep. One of those new friends was Brent Wilkes. A few weeks after Collins left Duke’s office, Wilkes FedExed him an unsolicited check for $5,000, which Collins mailed back.

In 2001, Collins learned that Duke was selling his yacht Kelly C to Wilkes. Collins said the sale didn’t pass what he called “The Washington Post test.” In other words, it would be bad if the newspaper found out about it. Duke cried when confronted about the sale, which the congressman admitted he knew was the wrong thing to do. What Collins didn’t know was that Cunningham had already pocketed $100,000 for the boat.

Geragos and prosecutor Phil Halpern continued to go at each other as Collins was testifying. Their jousting had Judge Larry Burns wagging his finger at them to behave themselves. Halpern, however, was less shrill than last week. Maybe he’s one of the four people reading this blog?

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