North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County Politics coverage


When allegations of unethical behavior begin flying, the rule of thumb for elected officials is to get the bad news out as soon and as fully possible, make a heartfelt apology and move on, political analysts and experts in crisis management said last week ---- a rule of thumb apparently ignored by Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

For weeks after news stories surfaced in early June of Cunningham's financial ties to a Washington defense contractor ---- selling his Del Mar Heights home to the company's founder and president for a price that apparently was hundreds of thousands of dollars above market value, and living aboard a Washington yacht owned by the same man ---- the eight-term Republican congressman was silent, refusing interviews and releasing brief, prepared statements proclaiming his innocence.

Finally, on June 23, he sent out a three-page statement in which he continued to profess his innocence of wrongdoing, while conceding he had shown "poor judgment" in doing business with the president of Washington defense contractor MZM Inc. Again, the former Top Gun flight instructor declined requests for interviews.

Five days later, a Washington attorney representing Cunningham announced that a grand jury was investigating the North County congressman's ties to MZM owner Mitchell Wade. Then, on July 14, Cunningham met with reporters at Cal State San Marcos, announcing that he would not seek re-election in 2006 due to the rising stress on his family. After reading his prepared statement, Cunningham left without answering questions from reporters.

To this day, he has not granted any interviews to the media.

"As a general principle, it's best to get everything on the table as quickly as possible, dump it all out and move on, but don't have a drip-drip that goes on and on," said a Washington-based political analyst, Stuart Rothenberg.

A Washington consultant specializing in crisis management said Thursday that stonewalling is a "huge mistake," for politicians.

"It's always better to come forward with the truth than to cover up," said Don Goldberg, who runs the crisis-management branch of Qorvis Communications LLC. "People can accept when someone makes a mistake, but when they lie, it's different."

One expert said that, given the federal grand jury investigation and the seriousness of the allegations that Cunningham is facing, silence may be the better part of valor.

UC San Diego professor Michael Bernstein said Thursday that Cunningham is not the first politician "to embrace the strategy of less is more ---- saying less is a way not to get caught in contradictions or misstatements."

But when a politician who is mired in controversy does speak with reporters, he must tell the truth, Bernstein said.

One person who hoisted himself on his own petard with his statements to the media was former President Bill Clinton, Bernstein said, referring to Clinton's initial public denials of having had sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"We know from the Clinton fiasco that when a politician starts to weave tales, he can get painted into a corner pretty quickly; if you don't say anything, that is not going to happen."

Goldberg, who was on Clinton's crisis-management team at the time of the Lewinsky scandal, said Clinton erred in not telling the full truth from the get-go.

"Clinton made mistakes in the Monica Lewinsky issue by not being more forthcoming and open early on," Goldberg said.

Bernstein, who teaches history, said it seems apparent that Cunningham's attorneys were the ones who advised him not to speak to the media.

"Most attorneys would say, 'Keep your mouth shut, your powder dry and see what happens,'" Bernstein said.

If getting re-elected is your goal, you need a lot of votes, but if avoiding a criminal conviction is your main goal, you only need one juror's vote, he added.

Cunningham's attorney, K. Lee Blalack, said Thursday that he would have no comment for this Perspective piece.

Another Washington observer said that Cunningham should have spoken out as soon as the story broke.

"He listened to lawyers over common sense," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy and communications with a Washington-based budget watchdog, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"If a sore opens and you don't treat it, it can get infected," Ashdown said. "In this case, it got infected because he didn't get out there early and tell his side of the story in an effective manner."

Just issuing prepared statements is not good enough, Goldberg said.

"You have to go through reporters and take as many hours as it takes to demonstrate the context and the facts in the best possible light ---- this is damage control 101," he said.

Rothenberg said that politicians love reporters when they are writing about their accomplishments, "but when the stories are generated by the press, most political figures get nervous," he said.

"Whether those of us in the media like it or not, (on stories such as this), we are as welcome as herpes," he said.

Things look bad for Cunningham, Rothenberg said.

"It's not surprising that he didn't go on Oprah to talk about his situation ---- once the government gets involved in the investigation of a congressman, that is a real red flag and very dangerous," Rothenberg said.


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