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More legal battles ahead in Cunningham bribery saga

Some who admitted a role in the Cunningham bribery scheme still face sentencing. A New York banker accused of laundering money for the politician still faces trial.
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Some who admitted a role in the Cunningham bribery scheme still face sentencing. A New York banker accused of laundering money for the politician still faces trial.And even though a federal jury convicted Poway defense contractor Brent Wilkes on Monday of bribing Cunningham, a second trial still looms for the 53-year-old businessman.

Wilkes, who made millions of dollars through the government contracts Cunningham steered his way, is also accused of bribing a top CIA staffer to win a no-bid contract as a middleman in selling bottled water to the spy agency in Iraq. The date for that trial has not been set.

In the Cunningham bribery case, Wilkes' attorney, Mark Geragos, said he will fight his client's conviction on the grounds the trial was tainted by preindictment leaks of information to reporters in January.

Geragos has said that the leaks about Wilkes' impending indictment hurt his client at trial.

The argument over the leaks will begin at the next hearing in Wilkes' case, set for December, in front of U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns, who has heard most of the cases involving the scandal. And with at least one media outlet saying it will fight any bid to force its reporters to reveal secret sources, it's a legal battle that could play out for a while.

Businessman could get longer sentence

Wilkes faces 20 years behind bars for bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and wire fraud charges for his conviction, which was handed up Monday. Sentencing is set for Jan. 28, but could be postponed until questions about the leaks are resolved.

Analysts said it was tough to speculate on the length of Wilkes' sentence.

"My crystal ball is not more accurate than anyone else's," said David Steinberg, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. "But I strongly suspect he will receive a longer, more serious sentence than Duke Cunningham."

The reason, Steinberg said, is that Cunningham struck his plea deal and cooperated with prosecutors, a move Steinberg said bought the politician a shorter period behind bars. Cunningham is serving a sentence of eight years and four months.

Perhaps that's true, said former San Diego U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez. But there are other arguments for the judge to consider.

"You could argue that a bribe is a bribe is a bribe, so both Cunningham and Wilkes are equally guilty," Nunez said. "On the other hand, the government official, Cunningham, would be held to a higher standard, and might be treated more harshly."

All of which makes it difficult to wager on what the sentence might be for Wilkes, who was convicted of doling out $700,000 in cash, gifts, trips and more in exchange for Cunningham steering his company more than $80 million in government contracts, Steinberg and Nunez said.

Aside from the fate of the defense contractor, two other men still face sentencing: Mitchell Wade, a second defense contractor, and Thomas Kontogiannis, a New York businessman.

Co-conspirator faces time

Wade plead guilty last year and cooperated with prosecutors, taking the stand and providing much of what the jury foreperson said was key testimony against Wilkes.

But Wade admitted plying the congressman with more than three times the amount of money and gifts that Wilkes gave Cunningham.

"Wade's sentence will probably be certainly less than Wilkes and probably less than Cunningham," Nunez said, "He's not a public figure and he cooperated. He gets credit for the good things."

Wade testified at Wilkes' trial that he was hoping his cooperation would keep him out of custody.

Court records show no sentencing date set yet for Wade, whose case played out in a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom. But he has a hearing in his case set for March.

And Wade may still find himself called by prosecutors to testify again, this time in the upcoming trial of John T. Michael, who is the nephew of businessman Kontogiannis.

Like his uncle, Michael is accused of washing money used in a shady house deal that ultimately exposed the bribery scheme. But unlike Kontogiannis, Michael has pleaded not guilty. His trial date was postponed after he was diagnosed with viral meningitis; no new trial date has been set.

Staff writer Mark Walker contributed to this report. Contact staff writer Teri Figueroa at (760) 631-6624 or Comment at