Most donors OK with Cunningham using money for defense costs North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

Only 33 of more than 700 contributors to what was to have been U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's re-election bid don't want him to spend their money on attorney fees, the congressman's campaign treasurer told the Federal Election Commission this week.

Cunningham, R-Escondido, is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation into his dealings with at least two defense contractors, MZM Inc. of Washington, D.C., and ADCS of Poway.

In a letter to the commission that governs campaign fund raising and spending, Friends of Duke Cunningham treasurer Kenneth Batson also said that many of the contributors have sent messages supporting the congressman's use of their money on his defense.

The campaign committee has asked the commission to allow Cunningham to spend the more than $672,000 in his campaign account on his attorney fees, which one of his top aides has said could reach $1.5 million. The commission is expected to rule on the request later this month or in early October.

Batson's letter was sent to the commission Tuesday as a follow-up to an earlier request for a ruling that would OK using the account to pay legal bills.

Last week, the government unsealed a civil forfeiture suit seeking to stop the announced sale of Cunningham's Rancho Santa Fe home, contending some of the $2.55 million he paid for it in early 2004 was obtained through a bribe Cunningham "demanded and received" from Mitchell J. Wade, founder of MZM.

Attorneys for Wade, who purchased the Del Mar Heights home that Cunningham lived in before buying the Rancho Santa Fe home, have refused to comment on that allegation. Wade paid Cunningham $700,000 more for the Del Mar Heights home than he would sell it for 11 months later.

Cunningham, 63, has denied any wrongdoing but announced in July that he would not seek re-election to another term representing the 50th Congressional District that covers most of North County.

Batson was away from the area Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

In his letter to the FEC, he opposes a request from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asking the commission to postpone a ruling until the grand jury has finished its work.

Batson argues that the commission has previously allowed use of campaign funds to pay for legal costs while investigations are under way and writes that Cunningham has "already incurred substantial legal expenses in connection with both accommodating requests from the grand jury and responding to media allegations and attention surrounding the investigation."

K. Lee Blalack, Cunningham's lead attorney, declined comment Wednesday.

Attached to Batson's letter are nine hand-written messages praising Cunningham's work in Congress and wishing him well, examples that typify the response to the request to use their money to pay the lawyers, Batson wrote.

The 33 people who do not want their money spent on his legal fees will instead have their donations given to the National Republican Congressional Committee.