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`Duke' Inquiry Cites Breakdowns

The findings could widen the Cunningham scandal, a Democratic memo suggests.

August 10, 2006|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An internal congressional investigation has found that "major breakdowns" in legislative controls enabled former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to use his position on the House Intelligence Committee to steer classified government contracts to political cronies, according to a memo distributed this week to Democrats on the panel.

The memo accuses Republicans of backing out of an agreement to subpoena Cunningham, and calls for the public release of a 20-page unclassified report documenting the findings of the investigation.

The memo was written by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), ranking Democrat on the committee, and circulated to Democrats on Tuesday.

Harman's description suggests that the seven-month probe by the House intelligence panel could significantly broaden the scope of the scandal surrounding Cunningham, the Rancho Santa Fe lawmaker who pleaded guilty last year to bribery and tax evasion and is serving an eight-year prison sentence.

The criminal investigation of Cunningham focused largely on the military contracts he influenced as a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

But the internal House probe has found a similar pattern of abuses in contracts involving U.S. intelligence agencies -- and includes language describing cases in which the disgraced congressman pressured committee aides to set aside secret funds for his associates, according to congressional sources familiar with the investigation.

The committee's report, which has not been released publicly, "provides important details about how the committee's processes were abused to accomplish Cunningham's illicit aims," Harman wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The panel's report also "highlights some major breakdowns in the ability of our committee to prevent the damage even after numerous 'red flags' were raised."

Harman did not elaborate on the nature of those "red flags," and a spokesman said she was not available to comment, citing an agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the committee to refrain from public discussion of the report before its release.

But senior congressional aides familiar with the report said the language referred in part to instances in which Cunningham's funding requests or instructions raised concerns among members of the Intelligence Committee staff.

"He wanted certain outcomes and for the committee to do certain things," said one congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation. "That obviously raised red flags with staff."

Despite those concerns, the aide said, Cunningham's requests often were granted. For that reason, the aide added, portions of the report could be embarrassing to committee staff and leadership. Another aide said that "staff felt pressured by Cunningham" and often acquiesced, "not wanting to offend him or make him upset."

Congressional aides from both parties said the Intelligence Committee had implemented changes to guard against similar abuses in the future.

In particular, aides said, lawmakers must now get written approval from the panel's top Republican or Democrat before they can submit requests that specific programs or contracts receive funding in spending bills. Requests also must be reviewed by budget directors on the Republican and Democratic committee staffs.

Cunningham abused the congressional process known as earmarking, in which members insert language in large spending bills that steer funds to specific projects, often in their home districts.

Once the funding was in place, Cunningham also pressured budget officers at the Pentagon and other agencies to award contracts to companies led by individuals who gave the lawmaker millions of dollars in cash and gifts. Among those still under investigation by federal authorities is San Diego defense contractor Brent R. Wilkes.

The committee's report is expected to provide significant new detail on Cunningham's efforts to insert provisions in intelligence budgets, which are shielded from public scrutiny because they are classified.

The report also is said to include new information on the activities of Kyle Dustin "Dusty" Foggo, a former high-ranking CIA official and lifelong friend of Wilkes who cultivated close relationships with members of the House Intelligence Committee.

Foggo resigned from the No. 3 position at the agency earlier this year and is under investigation for his role in handling CIA contracts awarded to companies controlled by Wilkes.

As part of its internal inquiry, the committee has sought to question Cunningham. But the former lawmaker has rebuffed those requests, citing his plea agreement and ongoing cooperation with federal prosecutors in San Diego.

Republicans and Democrats have been at odds over whether to compel Cunningham to testify. In her memo, Harman accused Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the committee, of backing out of an agreement to issue a subpoena.

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