The prosecution wrapped up its case against Brent Wilkes with testimony from Joel Combs, Wilkes’ nephew and right-hand man, followed by the coup de grace: the two prostitutes who serviced Wilkes and the congressman in Hawaii. Federal prosecutors had lulled the jury to sleep at first, but they ended with a devastating blow to the defendant, and I’m not sure how or if he’ll be able to recover.
Joel Combs had just gotten out of college when he went to work for his uncle’s startup company in 1995. Combs became his uncle’s man in Washington, and it wasn’t long before he was flying on private jets with Majority Leader Tom DeLay and House Speaker Denny Hastert back when they were two of the most powerful men in Washington.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Combs had to tell all to save his own skin. He did so with a great deal of composure, speaking mostly in one or two-word responses to questions about his uncle’s relationship with Duke Cunningham.
Q. What would Duke do for your uncle?
Q. What type of access did your uncle have to Duke?
A. Essentially unlimited.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. He could get Duke on the phone anytime, any place.
Q. What did he do to get this access?
A. He treated him really well.
Combs effectively brought the government’s case full circle, tying together all the strands that prosecutors had laid out for the jury. He cleared up the issue of intent I alluded to in my previous post and he gave jurors a glimpse of Wilkes with his guard down.
Through Combs’ testimony, Wilkes emerges as a savvy operator who had Cunningham’s number. Duke’s limited intelligence was something of a joke to Wilkes, Combs said. Wilkes instructed his employees to laugh at the Duke’s jokes, to find him interesting and pretend to be in awe of him. Wilkes told his employee to lose to Duke at poker and he yelled at one man who wasn’t losing enough.
Prosecutor Phil Halpern skilfully led Combs through bribe after bribe: a jet dock, a laptop computer, computer software for Duke’s boat, hundreds of meals at The Capital Grille restaurant, a ticket to the 2003 Super Bowl, golf, charter jet flights, machine gun lessons, and finally a pair of prostitutes.
The prostitutes came during a lavish 2003 Hawaii vacation, which was intended to get back in Duke’s good graces. Mitchell Wade had double-crossed Wilkes by going behind his back to develop his own corrupt relationship with Cunningham. In Wilkes’ words, “Mitch was upping the ante,” Combs said.
Wilkes flew Cunningham to Hawaii’s Big Island where the contractor had rented a private, beachside guest cottage for $6,600 a night. Upon arrival, Wilkes told Combs to get two girls. Combs dialed up a local escort service.
The women arrived with their driver around 11 p.m. that night. Combs answered the door, paid the driver $600 as arranged, and led the women to the back of the suite. There, Wilkes and Cunningham were lounging in the hot tub, smoking cigars.
Wilkes’ attorney, Mark Geragos, did what he could with Combs, but his wounds were all superficial. Yes, Combs had lied when FBI agents first questioned him, but that’s not much of a surprise. And some details of his story about the hookers had changed (i.e. he first said he called the escort service from the hotel phone, and then said he used his cell phone). The plain fact is I think Combs was telling the truth in court.
After Geragos spent a few hours tearing into Combs, the prosecution brought out the icing on their cake: the two prostitutes and their driver. I’ve written up an account of their testimony for the political blog, Wonkette, which you can find here.