Union-Tribune reporter speaks on importance of determination, investigation

Mayumi M. Kimura
City Times

“Question everything.” This was the advice that San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Dean Calbreath gave to San Diego City College students during an interview after speaking at Saville Theatre on March 12 about the uncovering of one of the biggest bribery scandals in congressional history.

Calbreath, a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that exposed a congressman and the corruption that reached into the highest levels of the CIA, the Pentagon and Congress, discussed the story behind “The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught,” as part of the 2008 Spring Literary Series.

“Dean Calbreath was a perfect choice. His story is extremely relevant and it’s big news. He was an obvious choice – it deals with public and local affairs,” said director of City College’s International Book Fair and English professor, Jim Miller.

Calbreath explained how a small tickle of his colleague’s investigative nose began the fall of former California Rep. “Duke” Cunningham. Tipped off by undocumented trips to Saudi Arabia that were personally financed, reporter Marcus Stern initiated a lifestyle audit on Cunningham to see whether he was living beyond a reasonable means of a congressman’s salary.

They found that Cunningham had bought a home in Rancho Santa Fe for $2.55 million and a previous one, which he had sold, in Del Mar for $1.67 million.

And if the price of these homes wasn’t reason enough for suspicion, the buyer of the Del Mar home was.

More digging led the team to a business by the name of 1523 New Hampshire Inc. This name was immediately recognized as an address in Washington D.C. The address was home to a corporate defense contractor, MZM.

The team knew then that they were about to unearth something big, especially after going over MZM’s public records. It showed the corporation’s defense contracts went from zero to worth more than $100 million, which coincided with the purchase of Cunningham’s Del Mar home.

They were in the midst of a scandal, but they were missing one thing. Quid pro quo, or the “something for something, one thing for another.” What was Cunningham giving in exchange for the extra $100 thousand he pocketed from the sale of his Del Mar home?

In a phone interview with Stern, Cunningham admitted to supporting defense contract programs, including MZM contracts, but never acted with bias. He was unaware that the reporter had knowledge of his home sale. On June 12, 2005, a short article on Cunningham’s possible bribery was printed.

And then the revelations began to surface. More names were introduced into the story, one being Brent Wilkes. Stern had gotten the name from a lead but found that it pointed back to San Diego, so he passed it over to the Union-Tribune team.

Calbreath began digging and found that Wilkes was a Chula Vista local who seemed to have no significant ties to Cunningham; but they continued to search.

Calbreath and his team were astonished by what they discovered. Wilkes had become quite the businessman. He worked as a liaison between companies that needed defense contracts and the congressmen who could get them.

In the span of two years, Wilkes had given over $80 million worth of gifts and “political contributions” to Cunningham in exchange for defense contracts for the companies he represented.

That was the end for Cunningham and those associated with him.

On Nov. 28, 2005, former California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned and soon pleaded guilty for accepting more than $2.8 billion worth of bribes from defense contractors for government contracts. He was sentenced to eight years and three months; the longest sentence ever given to a congressman.

Persistent investigation and an obsessive drive to find the truth led to the fall of one of the biggest known bribery cases in congressional history.

“I think this story helps students look at the larger political structure and what is involved. It shows the process of investigation and to not take everything at face value,” said assistant director of the International Book Fair and English professor, Kelly Mayhew.

And although there are always risks in investigating such high profile people, the need to know became stronger than the fear.

“I like Calbreath’s drive to find the facts. It’s not easy, especially dealing with the C.I.A. It took a lot of guts,” Darnell Ford said, radio/television writing student at City College.

Ultimately, Calbreath stressed the importance of demanding the truth when things just don’t seem right.

“When you doubt it, when you question it: investigate,” Calbreath said.

Donate to City Times

Your donation will support the student journalists of San Diego City College. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, cover the cost of training and travel to conferences, and fund student scholarships. Credit card donations are not tax deductible. Instead, those donations must be made by check. Please contact adviser Nicole Vargas for more information at [email protected].

More to Discover
Donate to City Times

Activate Search
The news site of San Diego City College
Union-Tribune reporter speaks on importance of determination, investigation