By Spencer S. Hsu and Charles R. Babcock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 16, 2006
A limousine company linked to a congressional bribery investigation offered its services to the Department of Homeland Security more than three months before the agency sought bids for a transportation contract, and eventually won contracts worth $25 million over six years, congressional investigators disclosed yesterday.
The local firm, Shirlington Limousine and Transportation Inc., also told DHS that it held special status under a federal program designed to help small businesses in economically distressed areas before it applied for and won such a designation, lawmakers said yesterday. That designation turned out to be a condition for obtaining the contracts.
Recently convicted former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) recommended Shirlington Limousine to the DHS in an April 2004 letter to the department, according to a written affidavit provided to House investigators by Shirlington Limousine President Christopher D. Baker.
The unusual circumstances laid out at a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing yesterday created more controversy for the company, whose executives have been questioned in an investigation of whether it helped provide prostitutes to Cunningham and other lawmakers on behalf of a California defense contractor. The company has denied wrongdoing.
"It just doesn't seem to be a reasonable sequence of events if there was not some political manipulation of the bid process. . . . This doesn't look right," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the management, integration and oversight subcommittee, which held the hearing.
Rogers added, "I can't understand why [Baker has] a letter from a California congressman as to his character or competence and quality, instead of his own congressman or some congressman of the district where the business will be conducted."
DHS procurement director Elaine Duke said the department routinely receives all sorts of offers from vendors, and DHS officials spoke with Baker around January 2004. But such a conversation is not a formal proposal, and all rules were followed, department spokesman Larry Orluskie said.
"I don't think it's fishy," Orluskie said. "They wanted to turn it [the contract] really fast, but I know they did it in accordance with federal acquisition regulations."
Duke said the department has no copy of Cunningham's letter. However, the department provided investigators with an April 20 e-mail from Shirlington Limousine in which the company said it had faxed a letter of recommendation from Cunningham, as well as a request for an advance -- seven days before DHS publicly awarded the contract and six days after DHS sought bids.
Rogers said lawmakers invited Baker and Shirlington Limousine's vice president to testify, but they declined because of a federal grand jury investigation. But both are cooperating by answering written questions, he said.
Agents are examining the relationship between Shirlington Limousine and Brent R. Wilkes, a San Diego businessman who is under investigation for bribing Cunningham in return for millions of dollars in federal contracts. Cunningham is serving more than eight years in prison for his part in the scheme.
The FBI is also investigating whether former CIA executive director Kyle "Dusty" Foggo steered contracts to Wilkes.
Michael York, one of Baker's attorneys, said yesterday that his client has been to San Diego and talked to the FBI, prosecutors and a grand jury. But he disputed any suggestion that Cunningham's letter improperly influenced the department's decision to award the firm contracts to provide limousine and shuttle services.
Homeland Security officials previously denied the existence of a Cunningham letter.
In comments released by his press secretary, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said: "If there's a reference to a letter, [Cunningham] is involved and DHS has not been truthful. . . . Did somebody clean out the file?"
The committee's senior Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), called for DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson to appear before Congress to discuss "major missteps."
"It is unconscionable to think that the agency charged with tracking down terrorists cannot even track down letters of recommendation," Thompson wrote.