Donors back Duke's use of money for legal costs North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

Campaign contributors apparently are OK with U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham spending their money on legal defense costs, the congressman's campaign treasurer said Monday.

Kenneth Batson, who manages the finances for the Friends of Duke Cunningham re-election committee, said the campaign sent out more than 750 letters to contributors seeking permission to use the money to pay the congressman's attorneys.

Thus far, about 30 percent of those who were sent the letters have responded and most have given permission to use the money for the legal bill rather than the campaign's other offered option of sending it to the GOP's National Republican Congressional Committee, Batson said.

"It's running about 7 to 1 in favor of using the money for the (legal) defense," Batson said.

Earlier this month, Friends of Duke Cunningham asked the Federal Election Commission for permission to use up to $672,000 in its campaign account to pay a legal bill that one his aides has said could reach as much as $1.5 million. The money was donated by individuals and political action committees.

Cunningham, R-Escondido, announced in mid-July that he would not seek re-election as he confronts a federal grand jury investigation into his dealings with defense contractors. The money was raised prior to his announcement.

The 63-year-old lawmaker, now serving his eighth consecutive term, has denied any wrongdoing.

The 50th Congressional District he has represented since 1993 includes most of North County as well as portions of northern San Diego.

Batson said that based upon past rulings by the election commission, he anticipates the government's campaign spending watchdog agency will approve the request. The agency is expected to rule sometime in October.

In addition to using his campaign account to pay his lawyers, Cunningham also has asked the House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for permission to set up a legal defense fund.

The House panel, commonly known as the ethics committee, can authorize establishment of a legal defense fund through a simple written authorization by its chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington.

If that happens, paperwork for the defense fund would be filed with the House Clerk's office. Legal defense funds allow one-time individual and corporate contributions of up to $5,000.

Attorney Charles LiMandri of Rancho Santa Fe gave $1,000 to Cunningham's campaign account before the congressman's troubles with federal prosecutors arose. He said Monday he has told Batson his contribution could be used on legal bills.

"I am disappointed with the current situation and the apparent lack of judgment, but nonetheless the guy is a great American and a war hero," LiMandri said, referring to Cunningham's career as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot. He became an ace and was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart during the Vietnam War.

LiMandri said his donation was made in recognition of Cunningham's support for transferring the cross at Mount Soledad to the National Park Service in order to keep the symbol at the memorial site.

"I hate to see him painted with a black brush that undermines all the good he has done," LiMandri said. "I won't withdraw my support totally and I will continue to pray for him and hope for the best."

Cunningham's difficulties escalated last week when it was learned the government has filed a civil suit against the $2.5 million Rancho Santa Fe home he purchased in 2004.

That acquisition came after he and his wife, Nancy, sold their Del Mar Heights home to defense contractor and personal friend Mitchell J. Wade for $700,000 more than Wade would sell the home for 11 months later.

In a filing related to that civil action, an assistant U.S. attorney wrote the home was obtained through "proceeds traceable to a violation" of the bribery statue in the U.S. Code.

His attorneys are contending the congressman and his wife's due process rights are being violated because that suit and its allegations were sealed when the government filed it on July 21, one week after Cunningham said he wasn't going to run for another term and would sell the home.

A hearing challenging the government's civil action is set for U.S. District Court in San Diego on Sept. 9.

Cunningham has kept a low profile during the August congressional recess, not scheduling any public appearances nor granting any interviews.

The names of staffers from the congressman's congressional office who have been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury must be disclosed to the House of Representatives under its rules when Congress reconvenes in two weeks.

Last month, the House was told that the congressman's legislative director, Nancy Lifset, had been subpoenaed. Last week, Cunningham's spokesman confirmed that additional staffers have received demands that they also appear before the grand jury.