Aide: Cunningham focusing on congressional work North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

While the outcomes of criminal and civil cases involving U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham remain uncertain, his chief spokesman says his boss remains focused on representing the 50th Congressional District.

But the eight-term Escondido lawmaker isn't in the public limelight very often these days. His appearances in the district that represents much of North County have been few in recent months, and his office issues only the occasional news release.

On Thursday, Cunningham appeared before reporters in Washington and took part in a news conference with U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, on a bill that calls for construction of a 2,000-mile fence along the entire border with Mexico.

"It's been proven that a better fence means less illegal activity at the border and the bottom line is that we must put homeland security first," Cunningham said during the conference. "The numbers speak for themselves that these fences work and we need to know who is coming into our country."

Spokesman Mark Olson said that on Wednesday Cunningham participated in a hearing on the prospect of the avian flu mutating and striking the United States.

Olson also wrote in an e-mail last week that his boss remains busy in his roles on conference committees ironing out differences between the House and Senate in defense and health and human services spending bills.

Two weeks ago, Cunningham missed a vote on a resolution that would have rejected a nationwide base closure and realignment plan, one strongly endorsed by California's congressional delegation and by local leaders because of how well this county's bases fared.

Olson wrote that Cunningham was "in a meeting" and would have voted against the resolution, which had it passed would have rejected the recommendations that are favorable for this county.

The only bill authored by Cunningham and adopted by the House in this session of Congress was his measure for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. The bill has since been bottled up in the Senate and is not expected to move forward.

Eight other bills he has sponsored remain in various House subcommittees. One of those highlighted by Olson is legislation that would place a moratorium on any new oil and gas exploration and leasing off the California coast.

In addition, Cunningham is listed as a co-sponsor of 118 other bills.

Olson said Cunningham also has focused his efforts on safe disposal of electronic waste and promotion of energy efficiency initiatives.

He attends weekly, closed-door briefings for members of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This week, Cunningham is slated to take part in a briefing from Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

None of Cunningham's aides have moved on since news of their boss's troubles emerged.

"I speak for everyone around here when I say that we are all proud of Duke's accomplishments over the years and enjoy working for him," Olson wrote.

To date, the only aide confirmed to have been subpoenaed to testify before the San Diego federal grand jury investigating Cunningham is Nancy Lifset, the congressman's legislative director.

New scandals help lower Cunningham's damaged profile North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

Time and the seemingly ceaseless litany of Washington political disgraces have arguably been kind to U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. In June, the veteran North County Republican lawmaker was the key attraction in the nation's scandal spotlight over a questionable real estate transaction with a defense contractor.

Nearly five months later, and despite being the target of an ongoing San Diego federal grand jury investigation, allegations of wrongdoing that are swirling around other top Republicans and Cunningham's decision not to seek re-election have served to move him far from the unwanted glare.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is facing criminal charges in Texas for allegedly funneling corporate campaign contributions to state legislative candidates, a violation of Texas law.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Frist is combatting allegations of insider stock trading.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who until 10 days ago was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, is facing a five-count criminal indictment for his alleged role in revealing the name of former CIA operative Valerie Plame.

All of which leaves Cunningham, who is alleged to have "demanded and received" a bribe in the real estate transaction, almost an afterthought on the nation's scandal scorecard.

"He was sort of the scandal du jour a few months ago," said Keith Ashdown of the Washington watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Now, he's not only off the front page, he's out of the news entirely.

"Part of it is the logical progression of the investigation ---- if they are doing a good job with the investigation then there isn't a lot that we should know about what is happening," Ashdown said.

The spokeswoman for another Washington watchdog group, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, said that while Cunningham may be out of the spotlight, her group still considers him "one of the most corrupt members of Congress."

"He certainly remains the focus of the U.S. attorney's office out there and ultimately that is what matters," said spokeswoman Naomi Seligman. "The fact that Congress refuses to police itself through its ethics committee and take its own action against him is outrageous but we fully expect he will be indicted."

Cunningham has not sought the spotlight very often since announcing in mid-July that he would not seek re-election. His public appearances have been few and very selective in the last five months, usually limited to events not open to the general public.

His spokesman said last week that Cunningham is focusing on his legislative duties while his attorneys deal with his legal troubles and supporters raise money for his defense costs.

Cunningham has won approval to use his campaign account for those costs. In addition, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct recently approved establishment of a separate legal defense fund that can remain open and accept contributions for up to 10 years

Coming to a head?

There are rumblings in Washington that the investigation could be coming to a head. A source close to the investigation contends that prosecutors are "ready to go."

The source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, has been involved in the case since it began, predicted indictments could be coming soon.

Also caught up in the Cunningham probe are Poway defense contractor Brent Wilkes and his company, ADCS, and New York developer Tommy Kontogiannis.

Like Wade, Wilkes was a longtime Cunningham friend and campaign contributor whose company may have benefitted from the congressman's role on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Kontogiannis is also described as a friend who purchased Cunningham's boat and whose family's mortgage company helped finance the purchase of the congressman's Rancho Santa Fe home.

"The amount of money involved will be astounding," the source said of what he anticipates the government's case to allege.

Phillip Halpern, the lead assistant U.S. attorney handling the Cunningham case, declined comment when reached Friday.

'Demanded and received a bribe'

There is little doubt that the government's case hinges largely on Cunningham's dealings with Wade, who purchased the congressman's former home in Del Mar Heights for $700,000 more than he would sell it for less than a year later.

Wade never lived in the residence nor used it for what Cunningham said he thought would serve as West Coast corporate housing for Wade's former company, MZM Inc.

Wade also provided the congressman with a boat to stay aboard rent-free while in Washington. At the time those deals were being made, Wade's company saw its Defense Department contracts soar.

In the four months since the grand jury began its criminal investigation, the only concrete allegation to emerge is that Cunningham "demanded and received" a bribe from Wade in the form of the cash that changed hands in the real estate deal.

That allegation came in a civil suit filed by the same federal prosecutors leading the grand jury's work. The suit seeks to guarantee the government a large share of the money that Cunningham would realize from the sale of his Rancho Santa Fe estate home, a home purchased following the sale of the Del Mar Heights property to Wade and paid in part with money the government contends was a bribe.

Attorneys for Wade have consistently refused to comment on the case. Attorneys for Wilkes and ADCS have said the company is cooperating in the investigation. Kontogiannis has refused comment.

Cunningham's lead attorney, Washington lawyer K. Lee Blalack of the well-connected firm O'Melveny & Myers, said last week that the congressman is looking forward to some form of resolution.

"Duke is anxious for the grand jury proceeding to conclude and he will not address the substance of that investigation until it has run its course," Blalack said Wednesday.

'Come get me'

Cunningham has denied any wrongdoing, issuing a statement in June in which he said he exercised "poor judgment" in selling his Del Mar Heights home to a friend and campaign supporter. During an interview with a San Diego television station this summer, he declared, "If I've done anything wrong, come get me."

A few weeks later, he called reporters to Cal State San Marcos to read a prepared statement announcing that he would not seek a ninth consecutive term in Congress.

He also said he would sell the Rancho Santa Fe home, a disclosure that triggered the government civil suit. Cunningham also said that he and his wife, Nancy, would donate a portion of the proceeds from the home sale to charity.

The Cunninghams listed the gated estate for $3.5 million, but their attorneys have said they are having difficulty attracting prospective buyers because of the government's civil suit.

The home was purchased in part with the proceeds from the $1.675 million that contractor Wade paid Cunningham in late 2003 for his home in Del Mar Heights.

Defense fund, Top Gun

Cunningham's attorneys and the trustee for his defense fund refused to say how much money has been raised in the six weeks since it was established. The trust is not required to file a report on its funds for a few more weeks.

The only thing that Kenneth Batson would say is that contributions are being received on an almost daily basis. Batson is Cunningham's longtime campaign treasurer and also has been appointed as the trustee of the defense fund.

A couple of months ago, the Federal Election Commission ruled Cunningham also can use $650,000 in his campaign account to pay his attorneys.

According to Cunningham's chief of staff Harmony Allen, those bills may exceed $1.5 million for the former U.S. Navy combat pilot who earned the Navy Cross and the only pilot to win designation as an "ace" during the Vietnam War.

Besides his congressional salary and military pension, Cunningham's only other major source of income was sales of Vietnam War memorabilia from a Web site he owned and operated called Top Gun Enterprises Inc.

Included among the items for sale on that site was a Buck knife marketed as having the Seal of Congress emblazoned on it.

Using the seal on commercial products is forbidden under federal law, and the site was shut down and has remained "under construction" since the day after a North County Times report about the knife.

The forfeiture case

In late October, the government got a U.S. District Court judge to rule in its favor and postpone further action on the civil forfeiture case while the criminal case remains active.

Prosecutors argued that allowing Cunningham's attorneys to question its witnesses in that part of their case against the congressman could jeopardize the integrity of the criminal case.

Judge Dana Sabraw ordered a 60-day hold in the proceedings, a hold that expires in mid-December.

After that, Sabraw said the case goes ahead unless prosecutors demonstrate why a further hold would be necessary.

If the civil case resumes or the grand jury takes action, Cunningham will once again find himself making national headlines.