Get a little; give a little

By Molly Ivins

Creators Syndicate

AUSTIN - The stirring tale of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, congressman and bon vivant, grows more entertaining.

Cunningham, a decorated pilot in Vietnam, has campaigned on the claim that he is the original model for Top Gun. In 2003, he sold his house in Del Mar, an upscale town north of San Diego. The buyer was Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor, who paid $1.675 million. Wade resold the house at a $700,000 loss.

Now, either this makes Wade the only person in recent history to lose money on a San Diego real estate deal, or the guy paid way too much for the house.

The deal is under investigation by a grand jury. Cunningham in turn used the money he made from the Del Mar deal to buy a $2.55 million home in Rancho Santa Fe.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Cunningham is living, rent-free, aboard a 42-foot yacht named the Duke-Stir, which belongs to the said same Mitchell Wade. Since 2002, Wade's company, MZM Inc., has received $163 million in defense contracts.

There the case stood until last week, when we learned from Copley News Service and The Washington Post that the boat-loving Cunningham was living on the Duke-Stir because he had sold his own boat, the Kelly C, a 65-footer, to Thomas Kontogiannis, a New York real estate developer.

Follow this closely:

Kontogiannis buys the boat from Cunningham in the summer of 2002. In 2003, a mortgage company owned by Kontogiannis' nephew and daughter finances $1.1 million of the price of Cunnigham's new home in Rancho Santa Fe. Also, Kontogiannis never gets around to putting the Kelly C in his own name, so the Coast Guard still thinks it's owned by Cunningham. What a misunderstanding.

My favorite quote, so far: Kontogiannis, when asked if he was doing Cunningham a favor by keeping the boat in his name while Kontogiannis paid $100,000 to redecorate it, said: "Why would I do that? I don't need the man." The pragmatic approach.

Kontogiannis admits that he was looking for a pardon for his unfortunate 2002 conviction on kickback and bribery charges in connection with a bid-rigging scheme for New York City school computers. He said Cunningham steered him to a Washington law firm for this purpose, but it was "too much aggravation."

MZM is working on classified intelligence projects for the government. The company's literature says it helps the government with "enigmatic problems."

For those who prefer to contemplate varieties of political corruption in a more systemic way, the current issue of Harper's magazine has a cover article on "The Great American Pork Barrel: Washington Streamlines the Means of Corruption," by Ken Silverstein, which I highly recommend.

Silverstein details the ballooning of "earmarks" in the federal budget.

The practice is not new -- pork barrel politics has a venerable history -- but it is spiraling out of control.

The same thing has happened with gerrymandering and campaign contributions. They've always been part of politics, it's just that now they are so much more so. What have been just deplorable flaws in our system are now eating it -- the flaws are getting bigger than the functioning, and serving the public interest is rapidly disappearing.

Silverstein reports on earmarks: "In the past two decades, the pastime has become breathtaking in its profligacy. Even as the federal deficit soars to record heights, the sums of money being diverted from the treasury have grown ever larger. Last year, 15,584 separate earmarks worth a combined $32.7 billion were attached to the appropriations bills -- more than twice the dollar amount in 2001. …

"An especially attractive feature for those private interests seeking earmarks is that they are awarded on a noncompetitive basis and recipients need not meet any performance standards."

We are being eaten alive by corruption.

Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate. 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90045

Hiding Underneath The Fl

Published on 7/10/2005

‘Many a bum show has been saved by the flag,” song and dance man George M. Cohan said when asked why he had patriotic songs and themes in so many of his Broadway shows.

The composer of perennially popular songs like “You're a Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” knew something about flag waving for commercial purposes but he surely never envisioned the extremes to which it would be taken by the Congress of the United States.

Six times since 1989, when the Supreme Court reminded the nation that flag burning and other obnoxious acts are protected by the First Amendment, the House of Representatives has tried to negate that decision.

It is as if they had never heard the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's observation that the First Amendment protects not just “free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Even if Holmes doesn't move them, Republicans, who are the most enthusiastic flag wavers, should have noticed when their colleague, Sen. Mitch McConnell, pointed out, “it (the Constitution) confers its benefits not only on those who love this land but those who hate it.”

Just before the July 4 recess, the House passed an amendment stating, “The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States” and the Senate will take it up soon after Congress returns from its recess Monday. In the past, the Senate has always blocked this foolishness, but it isn't guaranteed this time.

Sixty-five senators have voted for similar amendments in the past or have said they intend to do so this time. Only two more votes are needed to send the amendment to the states where 38 of them must ratify the amendment within seven years in order to enshrine what amounts to an amendment to the First Amendment. Four Democratic senators, up for re-election next year, are among the 65 amendment supporters. McConnell and Robert Bennett of Utah are the only Republican senators opposed.

In the House, three of our congresspersons, Democrat John Larson and Republicans Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons, voted “yes.” All solemnly said they were doing it for the troops. Larson was “honoring the memory of so many vets who died defending our nation.” Johnson said flag desecration “disrespects the memory of our sons and daughters who have served in the armed forces,” and Simmons, a co-sponsor of the bill, said his vote honors “the men and women who fought and died under our colors by protecting its sanctity.”

This crowd-pleasing blather is aimed at voters, not the men and women risking their lives every day in Iraq. They would rather see someone in authority doing something about the poorly armored vehicles and other faulty equipment they are routinely issued. They'd like more troops to help them deal with a savage enemy and they'd like someone to find a way to get them home soon, but all of that is much harder than waving the flag to distract voters from the bum show that has been the 109th Congress.

It is interesting that the principal sponsor of the amendment is one Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican who has been in the news recently for activities other than defending the flag against all enemies, most of them imagined. (Flag burnings are as rare and as threatening as quilting bees.)

Cunningham, who sits on the Defense Appropriations Committee, sold his home in Del Mar to a defense contractor he had helped get $41 million in government business.

The grateful contractor paid $1.6 million for the house, never moved in and quickly unloaded it for $975,000, taking a $700,000 loss. The congressman used the proceeds of the sale to move up to a $2.4 million home in his district.

But the transaction didn't end Cunningham's relations with the contractor. When in Washington, Cunningham lives on a yacht owned by — of all people — the same contractor. It is named “Duke-Stir” in apparent tribute to the contractor's benefactor, good old Duke Cunningham.

Asked about all this in mid-June, a Cunningham spokesman said a comprehensive statement was being prepared.

It has not yet been released, possibly because the dukester, the congressman, not the boat, has wrapped himself so tightly in the flag, he can't get out. Just another scoundrel finding a last refuge in patriotism.

Dick Ahles is a retired newspaper executive. He lives in Riverton.


© The Day Publishing Co., 2005

Losing Friends in Washington

NY Times

MZM Inc. has become radioactive to members of Congress, and that is not good for a military contractor that relies on the federal government for 99.3 percent of its revenue.

The company began to lose favor last month, when the Copley News Service said MZM's founder and onetime president, Mitchell J. Wade, had bought the home of Representative Randy Cunningham, Republican of California, for $1,675,000 in 2003 and sold it less than a year later for only $975,000, despite a real estate boom.

About the time Mr. Wade bought the house, MZM began to win Defense Department contracts that helped it triple its revenue last year.

Mr. Cunningham, a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, denied any link between his support for those projects and his house sale to Mr. Wade - or his living on Mr. Wade's yacht when in Washington.

The Justice Department is now investigating. About the same time, another representative, Virgil H. Goode Jr., Republican of Virginia, offered to
return all the campaign cash he has taken from MZM, his biggest single contributor.

(Coincidentally, MZM has recently received $600,000 in state government aid to relocate to Mr. Goode's district from Washington.)

Mr. Wade recently stepped down as MZM's president. James C. King, a retired lieutenant general, is taking over the job. Mark A. Stein

HARD TO GET When he signed up as the chief executive of TiVo, Thomas S. Rogers, the former president of NBC Cable, did not agree to go to Silicon Valley cheaply, or even full time.

In a proxy, TiVo says it agreed to a $750,000 salary, a bonus of up to $500,000, a million stock options and 350,000 restricted shares. It will fly Mr. Rogers between his New York home and a company apartment in Silicon Valley, and cover undefined expenses "appropriate for a chief executive officer of Mr. Rogers's stature." Patrick McGeehan

CLOSE CALL He could not escape a prison sentence for his role in the insider-trading scandals of the 1980's, but Ilan K. Reich did escape an even worse fate while flying a small plane north of New York City on June 30.

Mr. Reich, who was a mergers lawyer in Manhattan before he was convicted in 1986 for passing tips on pending deals to Dennis B. Levine, used a full-plane parachute system to splash-land his single-engine craft into a pond near Haverstraw, N.Y. He had blacked out briefly and awakened with the plane in a nose dive.

After the plane hit the water, he broke open a window and climbed out before the plane sank.

As Mr. Reich lay in the hospital with a broken back, a doctor asked: "By the way, did you know you have a brain tumor?" Mr. Reich said the tumor, which is benign, probably caused his blackout in the plane. Patrick McGeehan