Meet our newest correspondent, the very talented Seth Hettena, author of Feasting on the Spoils. For his first story, he writes about hookers, Hawaii and hot tubs. Oh, and how Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and defense contractor Brent Wilkes really, really like them.
Slutty San Diego Showdown
By Seth Hettena
Considering that their jobs both involve meeting strangers in hotel rooms and offering favors in exchange for money, there are good reasons why prostitutes and members of Congress are often mentioned in the same breath. Rep. Allan Howe of Utah was arrested in 1976 in Salt Lake City on charges of soliciting two policewomen posing as prostitutes. The House reprimanded Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts after it was discovered that his roommate was running a male prostitution ring out of the congressman’s D.C. apartment. Rep. Ken Calvert was caught in a car with his pants down and a woman’s head in his lap in 1993.
The latest chapter was explored in full detail yesterday in federal court in San Diego as prosecutors called to the witness stand two employees of an escort service named Centerfolds of Hawaii. The two women were asked about the night of August 15th, 2003, when they were dispatched to the Hapuna Suite, a private, oceanfront guest cottage on Hawaii’s Big Island that rented for $6,600 a night. A young man in a fancy Aloha shirt answered the door and led the women to the back of the suite. There, the women found their clients lounging in a Jacuzzi, smoking cigars. The men asked if the women wanted to get naked and join them in the hot tub, and that’s what the women did.
The first escort who testified described one of the men as an older gentleman with heavy jowls and a ruddy face. “The boisterous one,” is how the second escort described him. “He was overbearing.” That would be Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Vietnam War flying ace who is serving more than eight years in prison for accepting millions of dollars in bribes. The younger man who seemed to be running things was defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who is on trial in San Diego for conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and providing Cunningham with more than $600,000 in bribes.
While the prostitutes may be the most notorious bribe in the case, they were also one of the cheapest. Prosecutors say Cunningham’s escort that night cost Wilkes $300 (of which $200 of which went to the escort). The Hawaii trip cost Wilkes more than $50,000, and Cunningham was treated to, among other things, a scuba trip where Wilkes was videotaped singing “Bali Hai!” on the boat ride back to shore.
The women were in the tub long enough for 20 minutes or so, long enough for the two men to feed them grapes and to have an argument over, as one of the women put it, ” who was get which.” The choice was between Tammy McFadden, a lovely woman whose attempts to hide beneath her shoulder-length blond hair in court was oddly touching, and Donna Rosetta, to whom the years have been less kind. A few details about the women emerged in court: McFadden had studied nursing in the Air Force. Rosetta worked at Safeway for a few weeks before she took a job as an escort and drove around town on a blue moped.
It was clear that both men had their eye on McFadden. Cunningham wound up with Rosetta and the congressman voiced his displeasure. “He was a little bit vocal about it,” McFadden testified. The prosecution then cut to the chase. Rosetta, her formerly blond hair dyed black, testified that she followed Cunningham up to his room and had sex with him. He gave her a tip: between $50 and $80. They didn’t exchange pleasantries. The congressman told Rosetta he had to get ready to go.
Cunningham himself has provided a fuller explanation during a jailhouse interview earlier this year with federal investigators: “Cunningham said that he wore a condom because he wanted to be protected. According to Cunningham, he was somewhat embarrassed on this occasion because he had some difficulty in completing intercourse.”
So, Rosetta had some time on her hands. While she waited for her driver, Rosetta made her way downstairs where she found two of Wilkes’ 30-ish male employees. She described them as “bodyguard boys.” The good-looking one in the Aloha shirt, the one who had opened the door for her, was Joel Combs, Wilkes’ nephew and his right-hand man in Washington. “They were trying to act supercool,” investigators noted in the summary of their interview with her, “and wanted to have sex with her.” She lounged around outside in a hammock while the two young men asked if there were any girls they could be with in Hawaii. Finally, her driver came and drove her and McFadden home.
Wilkes, meanwhile, was a satisfied customer. He tipped McFadden $500 for her services. He also brought her back the following night for another round, and once again tipped her $500 in cash. Cunningham got another woman the following night, but he told federal investigators that he did not have sex with the second escort “because he felt guilty about his behavior and also felt that he was putting himself at risk as a congressman.” Jurors may get to hear from Cunningham himself, who is being held in the federal jail across the street from the courthouse.