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Cunningham's Fall From Grace, Power

Running for Congress as someone 'we can be proud of,' he was greeted as a hero and celebrity. Then came the tirades and the corruption.

December 05, 2005|Peter Pae, Tony Perry and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Bombastic and prone to speak first and think about it later, Randy "Duke" Cunningham was never known for understatement or the subtle approach in Congress. But the rampage he went on in the spring of 2000 was something else, even by his standards.

Three years earlier, using his position on a House defense subcommittee, he had bulldozed the Pentagon into buying a $20-million system it didn't want for digitizing paper documents. Predictably, the military dragged its feet on implementing the system, and Cunningham exploded.

During a subcommittee hearing, the California Republican demanded that the Pentagon official he blamed for the delays be fired.

"I want Lou Kratz removed from office," Cunningham thundered. "I think he's incompetent. And I'm calling for his removal. I've had it."

At the time, Cunningham's harsh rhetoric and extreme advocacy for a relatively minor program attracted virtually no attention.

More than five years would pass before it became clear exactly why Cunningham had gone to such extremes: The small information technology company involved with the digitization project was allegedly one of two obscure defense contractors that secretly showered Cunningham with an estimated $2.4 million in cash and expensive gifts -- including a Rolls-Royce, money to buy a posh 8,000-square-foot house, and a cornucopia of antique furniture, Oriental rugs and jewelry.

Last Monday, in a move that left many of his friends and colleagues professing shock and bewilderment, Cunningham, 63, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and announced he was resigning from Congress.

Washington is no stranger to congressional scandals; even now, several others are swirling around the Capitol. But the Cunningham case stands apart, both for the brashness of his actions and for the dizzying nature of his fall.

When it comes to using power in Congress and dealing with private companies and individuals, members of the House and the Senate have ways of achieving their ends while staying safely inside none-too-confining laws and ethics rules. But Cunningham seems to have been ignorant or disdainful of such niceties. As set out in the indictment and plea agreement, he operated like an old-fashioned ward boss with his hand out.

"The conduct is certainly brazen," said Kenneth Gross, a Washington lawyer and former chief of enforcement at the Federal Election Commission. "It is hard to understand what was going on in his mind."

For example, on two occasions, Cunningham took personal checks for $70,000 and $30,000 and, disdaining subterfuge, put both in his personal bank accounts, including one at the Congressional Federal Credit Union in the Rayburn House Office Building.

The collection of antique furniture that a contractor bought for Cunningham's house in Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County using a company credit card is so precisely cataloged that it suggests the congressman had provided a shopping list.

Then there are the ironies of Cunningham's rise and fall.

Cunningham came to Washington from the San Diego area 15 years ago with the campaign slogan "A Congressman We Can Be Proud Of." He was replacing a Democrat who had been driven from office by charges of sexual harassment. Two years later, in 1992, when Cunningham was redistricted out of his first seat, he took over a seat from a Republican incumbent who had been tainted by the House banking scandal.

A Vietnam War hero who shot down five enemy planes and received the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, 15 Air Medals and a Purple Heart as a Navy fighter pilot, Cunningham was one of the most decorated fliers from that war. In Washington, he was an instant celebrity, sought out by the news media and admired by colleagues for his heroism and his special knowledge of the armed forces.

Nor was the political market value of a good-looking, outspokenly patriotic military hero lost on Republican leaders at the time.

"I already consider him a treasure who I could send out anywhere in the country and be confident of his drawing power," former Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.) told The Times in 1991 when he was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"The older members treat him more like a celebrity than a freshman," Vander Jagt said. "In the short time he's been here, Duke's captured more attention than any other freshman I've ever seen."

It was a brilliant beginning to a career that would run for 15 years. Then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, Cunningham was an admitted felon, "in the twilight of his life," as he put it, facing up to 10 years in prison. He will appear before a federal judge in February for sentencing.

A 'Top Gun' in Congress

In his glory days, Cunningham walked the halls of Congress with a bear-like swagger that reminded people of John Wayne.

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