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.

The Seattle Times: Nation & World: Unafraid to blow the whistle

- Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, Washington Post
Sunday, August 7, 2005

Washington -- A lushly produced video on DVD arrived in lobbyists' mailboxes all over Washington this summer. In it, Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, narrates what amounts to a sales pitch for them to pay $2,500 each to party with him later this month in beautiful Sun Valley, Idaho.

"We shoot all day. We fish all day. We ride horses all day. And then we finish the day with the best barbecue in the West," the Idaho Republican boasts. "Frankly, I think this is the best event in the country."

For many years, Congress has regularly responded to the public's anger over the power of moneyed interests by reining in campaign donations and limiting the ways that lobbyists can enrich the lawmakers they're paid to influence. But lawmakers and lobbyists have often found ways to get around the restrictions -- on "soft money," on gifts, on travel and the like. What lobbyists get is extra access to federal decision-makers that average citizens rarely have.

For example, congressional rules prohibit a lobbyist or any other outsider from spending more than $100 a year to feed or entertain a federal lawmaker or any of his staffers. But the "Crapo Hook & Bullet" event is exempt from the limitation because it's a campaign fund-raiser. Governmental ethics rules don't govern election financing.

"One of the capital's great ironies is that lobbyists can't treat lawmakers to golf or an expensive meal unless they're handing over a check for the congressman's election or for his charity, which, of course, only compounds the problem," said Bill Allison, editor-at-large for the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. "Some of the most outrageous things that happen in Washington are perfectly within the rules."

In recent months, the patchwork of rules has prompted new ethical questions. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has asked the ethics committee to determine whether he wrongly took trips abroad paid for by registered lobbyists. And Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Del Mar (San Diego County), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, is facing a federal grand jury probe into his relationship with a defense contractor on whose yacht he lived rent-free.

But such investigations are rare because overt impropriety is so simple to avoid.

For instance, no one would have any legal cause to question the day in May that Cunningham and 20 or so other lawmakers spent shooting trap and skeet in suburban Maryland. The lobbyist-filled event was free for the legislators and was paid for by the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, a $1.5 million-a- year organization funded by $25,000 contributions from, among others, a gun manufacturer, a sporting-goods association, a defense contractor, a tobacco producer, a cable company, an electric utility and a forest products giant.

Because the event was "widely attended" and "educational" -- requirements spelled out in federal rules -- it wasn't subject to the gift limits, according to Jeff Crane, the foundation's president. Lawmakers such as Cunningham (a former fighter pilot who won a trophy for being the day's "top gun") were able to "have a fun day to shoot shotguns" without worrying about the cost, Crane said.

Legislators say they are obliged to raise funds for their re-elections and stay informed about policy issues. So, they argue, it makes sense for them to take advantage of the leeway that the rules give them to make that happen.

The sportsmen's foundation is only one of several nonprofit groups that cater to congressional caucuses by holding seminars and other events. The Congressional Economic Leadership Institute, which works closely with the Competitiveness Caucus, offers several trips a year, including a visit for congressional aides to Las Vegas. The trip is partly paid for by the American Gaming Association, the gambling industry's chief lobby.

Registered lobbyists are barred from paying for lawmakers' travel. DeLay has been accused of breaching that rule because lobbyist Jack Abramoff put charges for an overseas trip on his credit card. But lobbyists' clients and the groups their clients support are allowed to host lawmakers' trips and do so often, usually to lovely places.

During the past five years, members of Congress have received $18.3 million worth of travel at the expense of private organizations, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan research service. That includes 628 lawmakers who made 6,242 trips, 57 percent of which were taken by Democrats.

The most popular destinations were vacation spots, according to a study by the Medill News Service and American Public Media, which produces programs for public radio stations. From January 2000 to mid-2004, No. 1 was Florida with more than 500 trips, followed by California with nearly 400 trips and New York with more than 300. West Virginia, home to the Greenbrier resort, was the fourth most popular destination, with more than 200 trips. These were permitted because they were connected to "official duties" -- one of the requirements that the ethics rules impose on privately paid trips.

At least 850 of these trips were paid for by organizations with one or more registered lobbyists on their boards, the Medill study said.

Charity events also provide a sanctioned way to funnel otherwise forbidden perks to lawmakers and staffers. For years, the National Federation of Independent Business sponsored a golf outing for congressional staffers. When gift limits were imposed nine years ago, the event had to be canceled. A couple of years later, however, it came back stronger than ever as a charity tournament. The reason: Events that benefit good causes are exempted from the gift rules.

"It needed to be a widely attended charity event in order for staff to participate," said Donald Danner, executive vice president of the NFIB. "So we decided to make our charity Habitat for Humanity and we were back in business. " Home Depot, the National Restaurant Association and the law firm Arent Fox helped sponsor this year's NFIB Summer Classic, which provided free golf and food to more than 40 congressional aides.

Lawmakers can no longer solicit, and political parties cannot accept, soft money -- those large, unregulated donations that for years had helped candidates in elections. They can now collect only "hard money" -- strictly limited amounts that go directly into election coffers. But they can still attract large sums for other purposes -- very worthy ones, they insist -- such as self-named academic institutions. Companies with interest in legislation have trouble saying no.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., former chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's communications subcommittee, helped start the Burns Telecom Center at Montana State University in 1993. Its national advisory board is a pretty good sampling of firms that have both donated to the center and lobby Congress on telecommunications issues, including representatives of two telephone companies, a media conglomerate, a radio broadcaster and a software maker.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., also has an academic outlet named for him -- the Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Mississippi. According to the center's Web site, givers of $100,000 or more get "exclusive" invitations to attend "a private breakfast with Senator Lott." (After the Washington Post asked about the offer, the site was taken down and a Lott aide said the senator had never agreed to the breakfast.)

The most common method of assisting lawmakers' re-elections while also contributing to their personal entertainment is the campaign fund-raiser. Most are pedestrian affairs that feature finger food and a quick reception line at an eatery or office near the Capitol. The office of Associated General Contractors of America houses about 100 fund-raisers annually because it's nearby. But barely a week passes when at least one out-of-town fund-raising event doesn't entice contributors with golf, a boat excursion or skiing. The House Republicans' event list between mid-July and mid-August advertises 12 golf outings, four baseball games, a musical show and a night of "champagne and caviar."

The competition for donors is so intense that lawmakers try to outdo each other with innovative fund-raising come-ons. Four members of the House Ways and Means Committee held what they called a "block party" to make it easier for lobbyists to drop off checks. The lawmakers, who live on the same block on Capitol Hill, each offered a different alcoholic beverage to donors as they stopped by on the same evening this spring.

"There are 20 to 40 fund-raisers a day that people have a chance to go to and they can't make them all," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who conceived and benefited from the block party. "You want to make sure yours stands out and that people say, 'That's fun!' "

That's clearly what Crapo is shooting for with the Hook & Bullet. But his donors, who pay separately for their travel and much of their recreation, see lobbying advantages as well. An unidentified woman on Crapo's DVD puts it this way: "It's a lot of fun to be with Mike and his family and to get to know him better and to spend more time with the staff."

Page A - 8