Congressman Kevin McCarthy is dismissing as a "charade" a Los Angeles Times report that a company owned by his wife's family won more than $7 million over nine years in no-bid and other federal contracts at U.S. military bases — contracts that were based on her brother's questionable claim of Native American ancestry, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
The contracts were awarded through a federal program intended to help disadvantaged minorities. They included work at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Edwards Air Force base, both located in the eastern Kern County desert portion of McCarthy’s district, and the Lemoore Naval Air Station in Kings County, according to the Times story written by Paul Pringle and Adam Elmahrek.
Vortex Construction, whose principal owner is William Wages, brother of McCarthy's wife Judy, received a total of $7.6 million in no-bid and other prime federal contracts starting in 2000, The Times found. McCarthy took office in 2006, replacing former Congressman Bill Thomas, whom McCarthy had worked for as a top aide.
Vortex secured a little more than $2 million in no-bid and other federal contracts between 2000 and 2005, but from 2006 through 2008 that number jumped to $4.9 million, the Times reported.
The Times investigation has found no evidence that McCarthy did anything to steer contracts to the company. Both Wages and McCarthy told the Times they have never discussed Vortex’s work with each other.
McCarthy spokesman Matthew Sparks, reacting to the Times story, told The Californian that McCarthy considered the report nothing more than a manufactured attempt to create the perception of "improper behavior."
"Congressman McCarthy is utterly confused by the point of the story and the space they dedicated to it," Sparks wrote in an email. "After trying to spin up a suggestion of improper behavior they conclude themselves, 'There is no evidence that McCarthy did anything to steer contracts to the company.' This whole charade is a disappointing development in the venerable L.A. Times’ history."
Bakersfield-based Vortex is co-owned by McCarthy’s mother-in-law and employs his father-in-law and sister-in-law, Wages told the Times. Judy McCarthy was a partner in Vortex in the early 1990s.
Vortex faced no competitive bids for most of the contracts because the Small Business Administration accepted Wages’ claim in 1998 that he is a Cherokee Indian. Under the SBA program, the Times reported, his company became eligible for federal contracts set aside for economically and socially disadvantaged members of minority groups.
Wages told the Times he is one-eighth Cherokee. An examination of government and tribal records by The Times and a leading Cherokee genealogist casts doubt on that claim, however. Wages is a member of a group called the Northern Cherokee Nation, which has no federal or state recognition as a legitimate tribe. Leaders of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes say the Northern Cherokee Nation is a fraud.
Vortex was awarded more than $4 million in minority set-aside contracts for projects at China Lake. McCarthy, currently the House majority leader and a leading candidate to become speaker if the Republicans hold Congress next month, has been a staunch advocate for funding and staffing for China Lake, the Navy’s largest property at 1.1 million acres, and he led successful efforts to expand its borders.
In an interview with the Times, Wages said anyone who claims Vortex prospered because of his ties to McCarthy “is a liar.”
McCarthy, who has hosted multiple business forums with the SBA on how contractors might do business with China Lake, declined to be interviewed by the Times. In written responses to questions from The Times, he described Wages as “a friend and my brother-in-law.”
“But other than a batting cage we owned and operated together in our 20s I haven’t had interactions with Bill on any of his subsequent business pursuits,” McCarthy wrote, referring to the now-defunct Mesa Marin Batting Ranges that they opened in 1991.
McCarthy said he did not help Wages qualify for the SBA program or obtain set-aside contracts, and said he had not discussed Wages’ membership in the Northern Cherokee group with him.
“I’m not aware of the program’s qualification process but have no reason to doubt that Bill and the SBA executed the process fairly and in accordance to program standards,” McCarthy wrote.
Wages’ attorney, Jason Torchinsky, told the Times, “Look, the SBA approved the application.”
Vortex entered the SBA program in 1998, the Times reported, participating for the maximum allowable nine years. Later, Vortex profited from set-aside contracts by mentoring and helping to finance a second minority-owned company, J.J. Leon Construction. Wages said Vortex was paid about $1 million for its work with J.J. Leon Construction.
Vortex’s minority-assistance SBA business disappeared a year after its term in the program ended in 2007. Soon after, however, Wages said he began helping Johnny J. Leon, who had worked on Vortex projects, obtain federal contracts for his own firm. Wages said he extended a line of credit to J.J. Leon Construction and allows it to use a small building near China Lake that Wages and his family bought in 2016.
Torchinsky declined to say whether Vortex received income from the other company's use of the building. Wages “has decided to withhold certain material that is of a personal or sensitive business nature," the attorney told the Times in an email.