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Rep. Cunningham Pleads Guilty to Bribery, Resigns

The veteran lawmaker admits receiving $2.4 million from military contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes.

November 29, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A tearful, trembling Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) resigned Monday after pleading guilty to receiving $2.4 million in bribes from military contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes.

The money involved makes Cunningham's the largest bribery case since several members of Congress were convicted of the crime in the early 1980s.

The downfall of Cunningham, an eight-term congressman and decorated Navy fighter pilot from the Vietnam War, began with revelations about the sale of his house in Del Mar Heights to a military contractor at an inflated price two years ago.

But in a plea agreement, Cunningham admitted a pattern of bribery going back to 2000, with contractors supplying him with Persian carpets, silver candelabras, a Rolls-Royce, antique furniture, travel and hotel expenses, use of a yacht and a lavish graduation party for his daughter.

In return, Cunningham used his high-ranking position in Congress -- he served on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Intelligence Committee -- to "influence the appropriations of funds and the execution of government contracts."

"I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my high office," Cunningham, 63, said outside the federal courthouse. "I know I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation [and] my high office." Cunningham left without answering questions.

Cunningham, who represented an affluent suburban district, faces a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $350,000 fine when he returns Feb. 27 to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns.

Cunningham has also agreed to forfeit his current home in Rancho Santa Fe -- which he purchased in part with illicit funds -- more than $1.8 million in cash, and a dozen pricey antiques, pieces of furniture and Persian-style rugs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has roughly two weeks in which to decide on a date for a special election to fill the remainder of Cunningham's term. But his guilty plea could have an effect on other races. Republicans are trying to maintain their grip on the House and Senate in next year's elections, and Democratic strategists believe that Republican ethics woes are a powerful political weapon they can use.

In addition to Cunningham's case, those woes include the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who lavishly entertained lawmakers -- many of them powerful Republicans on key committees -- in his skyboxes and with trips to overseas resorts between 2000 and 2004.

Democratic leaders were quick to argue that Cunningham's crime is part of a pattern.

"This offense is just the latest example of the culture of corruption that pervades the Republican-controlled Congress, which ignores the needs of the American people to serve wealthy special interests and their cronies," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, said he thinks the Democratic charge may stick. "Frankly, Republicans are held to a higher standard, mainly because they are the ones who always preach morality," Weyrich said. "I think voters are going to punish them over this."

Keith Ashdown, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said Cunningham's guilty plea hurts both parties.

"There are very few things that I read that kick me in the gut. This is beyond my wildest guess of how bad it actually is -- how bad, how long and how nobody knew about it," said Ashdown. "I don't think Democrats or Republicans win on this. It basically makes people detest Congress even more and deters voter turnout."

According to documents filed in federal court, Cunningham began receiving bribes in 2000 as his seniority gave him political power to influence the awarding of military contracts.

The agreement refers to four co-conspirators who lavished money and gifts on Cunningham.

Although the indictment does not name the co-conspirators, the San Diego Union-Tribune revealed in June that Cunningham had sold his home in Del Mar Heights for $1,675,000 in November 2003 to Mitchell Wade, founder of Washington-based MZM Inc., a defense firm specializing in classified projects. An effort was made by the contractor to hide his identity as the buyer.

Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, a local school official, then bought an 8,000-square-foot home in nearby Rancho Santa Fe for $2.5 million.

Seven months later, without ever living in the home, Wade sold the home in Del Mar Heights for $975,000, a $700,000 loss. Federal grand juries in Washington and San Diego are investigating Wade, who has resigned from MZM.

In late August, federal prosecutors took the unusual step of filing a civil lawsuit to seize the Cunninghams' home in Rancho Santa Fe, much as prosecutors seize property purchased by drug dealers and other criminals.

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