North County Times / The Californian - Top Stories - Lessons from the Cunningham case

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

Randy Cunningham, the man known to most by his sobriquet "Duke," was used to receiving standing ovations.

In a testament to his popularity, or to voters' willingness to grant the benefit of the doubt, he was still basking in adoration even after he became the focus of a San Diego federal grand jury investigation into his dealings with a defense contractor, a contractor who paid an inflated price for Cunningham's Del Mar Heights home.

Investigation or not, Escondido Rotarians in June gave their 50th District congressman not one but two standing ovations, and they also sang him a song of praise set to the tune of "Anchors Aweigh."

And all through that ceremony, just as each time Cunningham accepted similar plaudits over the last four years, he was living a double life ---- one as a seemingly committed politician, the other as a seemingly unabashed crook.

His decade-and-a-half-long public life was that of a flag-waving, Reagan-like conservative who wielded influence and brought home millions in government contracts through his positions on powerful appropriations and intelligence committees.

But since 2001, from what is now known, his private life was all about arranging and taking bribes, laundering the money and then cheating on his taxes to cover up the ill-gotten gains.

Once revered because of his status as a U.S. Navy ace pilot for shooting down five North Vietnamese MiG fighters during the Vietnam War, Cunningham is now reviled for a series of crimes that he and a handful of cronies, now called co-conspirators, committed.

'Extraordinary audacity'

Cunningham, in the words of San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, exercised "extraordinary audacity" in taking $2.4 million in three dozen acts of bribery and cheating on his taxes between 2001 and 2005.

Overnight, Cunningham fell from major American hero to major American criminal.

For his crimes, Cunningham, 64, now has the ignominious distinction of holding the No. 1 ranking on the list of Congress members who have received ill-gotten gains.

He made it there by accepting checks and cash, antiques, furniture, yacht club fees, boat repairs, moving costs, vacation expenses and a Rolls-Royce, all in violation of bribery statutes and all in exchange for steering defense contracts to friends, according to the plea deal he signed.

"The citizens who elected Mr. Cunningham assumed that he would do his best for them," Lam said shortly after getting his guilty pleas on Nov. 28. "Instead, he did the worst thing an elected official can do ---- he enriched himself through his position and violated the trust of those who put him there."

Cunningham is required by his plea agreement to give prosecutors information about his co-conspirators. He may be subjected to a polygraph examination if there is any doubt about the truth of what he tells.

On Feb. 27, he is scheduled to face sentencing that could land him 10 years in prison and a massive fine.

The prison time will give him plenty of opportunity to file the amended tax returns for the years 2001 through 2004 that the IRS has demanded and will likely render him broke, despite congressional and military pensions that should garner him somewhere around $75,000 a year.

Shortly after his guilty pleas were entered before U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns, Cunningham appeared before reporters outside the federal courthouse.

It was clear the man so often associated with the Navy flight school and Hollywood film "Top Gun" was now simply done.

The ashen-appearing former fighter pilot didn't explain why he did it, didn't say what motivated him to trade his honor and reputation for cash and goods. The only memorable line was a glimpse into the state of his soul.

"In my life I have known great joy and great sorrow," Cunningham said during his statement. "And now I know great shame."

Shame for all?

As his co-conspirators remain the subject of a federal probe, Cunningham's fall has left lots of flotsam in its wake, including an April 11 special election to fill out the eight remaining months on his unexpired term.

Among those ripples are questions for voters, some soul-searching for the news media, and perhaps a move for real reform in Congress.

For voters left without congressional representation until a replacement is elected, is there a collective shame for not watching their congressman more closely?

For the media, including the North County Times, that failed to notice or paid scant attention while the congressman was upgrading his ride to a Rolls-Royce, moving into a gated mansion and seemingly living high on the hog, what questions should there be, and have been, in newsrooms?

And where was Congress and its own watchdogs when Cunningham was seemingly raiding the national treasury to help two buddy defense contractors win Pentagon work? In taking their money in exchange for steering them work, Cunningham "received payments and benefits, and not because using Co-conspirators Nos. 1 and 2 was in the best interest of the country," according to his plea agreement.

Lessons for voters

Leon Panetta, a former California congressman and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said voters have the power to effect real change.

"Voters have got to stop taking members of Congress who seem to somehow get the notion that they are entitled to their seats for granted," Panetta said in an interview last week from his office at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at Cal State Monterey Bay. "Redistricting has created safe seats to the point the public is almost apathetic about who represents them, and when the public isn't vigilant and doesn't pay attention, this is what can happen."

Change will happen if voters want it to, Panetta said.

"It really does rest with the electorate. Change happens within the institution itself only in times of crisis. If the voters get angry and disgusted enough, they can take it out on the entire institution.

"If I were an incumbent in Congress right now, I would not be resting easy."

On a personal note, Panetta said he was "astounded" at Cunningham's crimes.

"I just could not believe that somebody like him who had been around a while could assume he could do what he did and get away with it," he said. "It paints everybody as being in the same kind of bag, and it further damages trust in the institution."

San Diego political consultant Tom Shepherd of Shepherd and Associates said the 50th District may become ground zero for ethical reform.

"This is going to be a national debate in 2006, and North County voters are going to be on the cutting edge as a result of the special election," he said. "If voters want significant change, they are going to have to focus on these issues, and the whole Cunningham experience suggests there probably is a need for voters to do that."

Cunningham's crimes were in part a result of a congressional committee process that allows individual members to steer work to their friends, he said.

"The way the process works is clearly subject to tremendous abuse, and I think voters need to take a careful look at that and look for candidates willing to address those kinds of problems."

The Republican and Democratic parties would be wise to start that review before next year's elections, Shepherd added, citing the ongoing case against former House Republican majority leader Tom DeLay, accused of illegally steering money to Texas state legislators as well as violating House ethics rules in his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"The DeLay controversy gets far more publicity nationally, but it gets down to the same basic problem that Cunningham represents ---- the lack of accountability and the tremendous temptation for elected officials to succumb to financial interests."

The media

It was a Copley News Service report in June that started the unraveling of Randy Cunningham's web of deceit.

Marcus Stern, in the news service's Washington office, detailed how Mitchell Wade, founder of the defense firm MZM Inc., paid $700,000 more for Cunningham's Del Mar Heights home that he would sell it for less than a year later. That purchase provided the cash for Cunningham to buy the gated mansion in exclusive Rancho Santa Fe.

Until then, rarely was there a negative word about Cunningham, who had won regular endorsement for re-election from this newspaper.

At the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank and center for continuing education, vice president and senior scholar Dr. Roy Peter Clark suggested that until Stern's report, the media may have lost sight of its role as a government watchdog.

Newsroom budget cuts over the years that have reporters covering multiple beats and lack of money to fund bureaus in Washington are one part of the problem, Clark said.

"Communities should hold their news organizations accountable," he said last week. "Not necessarily for some sort of ideological bias, but in terms of performance and level of public service."

But the greater failing may have been in forgetting the watchdog role.

"Every news organization has to walk the line between skepticism and cynicism, and it appears there may not have been enough skepticism directed at this individual ---- anyone who looks at politics through rose-colored glasses is just a fool."

The adage "follow the money" wasn't done until Stern's report, something Roberta Baskin at the Center for Public Integrity said may have been the media's biggest sin.

"It's always about following the money," said Baskin, executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan center in Washington, which conducts investigative research and reports on public policy issues.

"You always need to look beyond what people say and what they do to see where the money is coming from and where it's going," she said.

Stern's story did just that. Until then, no media outlet in San Diego or in Washington had really taken a hard look at Cunningham and where he was getting his money and where it was being spent.

North County Times editor Kent Davy said that when Cunningham was running for re-election in 2004, the newspaper failed to look below the surface.

"If we had been much more aggressive about trying to understand his finances and his lifestyle, we might have stumbled onto the key to the story," Davy said. "The recommendations about following the money are dead-on, and that implies that we need to be doing routine record checks of people in the news so that things like the house transaction don't surprise us."

While not first with the initial story about the home sale, Davy said the newspaper "responded in a very credible manner which has significantly pushed the story along."


With its reputation tarnished even further by Cunningham and other ongoing scandals and ethics cases, political observers say the time for meaningful reform has arrived.

One seemingly simple step has been taken through a handful of bills that seek to accomplish the same thing ---- barring pension benefits for federal employees, including congressional representatives, convicted of major felonies. To lose the pensions now, members of Congress must be convicted of treason-related crimes.

The methods by which members of the appropriations or intelligence committees can steer contract awards through one or two telephone calls to Defense Department officials also may come under scrutiny.

And the House ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is supposed to start functioning in 2006 after more than a year of inaction because of partisan bickering.

A bipartisan probe of Cunningham's access to national secrets is under way, a probe ordered to make sure he wasn't brokering classified intelligence.

Calls for meaningful reform from public interest and watchdog groups seem to be getting more play, but whether those will bear any fruit is far from certain.

Keith Ashdown at the Washington watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says he, too, was fooled by Cunningham.

"I professionally watch Congress all the time, and the lesson I've learned is don't assume anything, because it can be much worse than it actually appears. The actions of one congressman have served to make millions of voters even more skeptical of Congress."

Ashdown said Cunningham is a case where one rotten apple really has spoiled the bunch.

"You can't give anyone running for Congress the benefit of the doubt any more. They're all guilty now until proven innocent. When someone like Cunningham falls from grace the way he did, you really have to question everyone who has an office at the Capitol.

"The challenge is, how do you provide that oversight and at the same time not lose faith in our elected leaders and that they really are trying to do their best?"

Cunningham's future

In his statement after his guilty plea, Cunningham asked for forgiveness, offered a brief apology and vowed to "use the remaining time that God grants me to make amends."

It was not the first time the Los Angeles-born Cunningham had invoked the name of God.

At the start of each Congress, Cunningham stood up with more than 400 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives and took the following oath:

"I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

The day he's scheduled to face sentencing is also the last day to file for the special election to fill out his unexpired term. Cunningham faces five years in federal prison for the one count of bribery and an additional five years for the one count of tax evasion he has admitted. He also faces a $350,000 fine.

The federal prison in Lompoc, 175 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is a potential destination. From there, Cunningham would be able to hear and probably see jet fighters taking off and landing at the adjacent Vandenberg Air Force Base. It will be a long way from his own days as a fighter jock.

This spring, the IRS plans to auction off many of the antiques, rugs and furniture seized from Cunningham's home.

In court, Cunningham's wife, Nancy, continues to battle the government for a portion of the recent sale of their Rancho Santa Fe home for $2.6 million.

As her husband prepares to spend what those close to the case believe will be years behind bars, he leaves public life as a disgraced lawbreaker with no more standing ovations and only one certain new title ---- federal inmate.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or mlwalker@nctimes.com.

Former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham wipes tears from his eyes in this file photo, taken after he announced his resignation Nov. 28. Cunningham left office after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes, leaving much of North County without a representation in Congress and opening the gates for a race for his spot in Washington. /NCT file photo.