Watchdogs say House muzzling staffers North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News


Two congressional watchdog groups are accusing House leaders of trying to minimize the ethics scandals plaguing Washington Republicans by muzzling staffers who worked for former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned after admitting he took millions in bribes.

When the North County Times requested interviews last week with two of Cunningham's former staffers, the workers said they were under orders from the House clerk's office not to speak to reporters.

"I am not allowed to talk to the press; because of the clerk, I can't give interviews," Cunningham's former chief of staff Harmony Allen said last week when questioned about how the scandal has affected the lives of the fallen congressman's former staff members.

A House policy prohibits staff members in a vacated office from speaking with the press without approval from the clerk, said Jon Brandt, a spokesman for the Committee on House Administration. He later e-mailed a copy of that policy to the North County Times.

Brandt said that because interviews with former Cunningham staffers could touch on areas relating to the business of the 50th Congressional District office at the time it was under Cunningham's command, "the decision has been made that no" interviews will be allowed, he said.

Brandt said the rule has existed since before Republicans become the majority in the House in 1995.

"We are not trying to be (uncooperative), it's just standard operating procedure," Brandt said.

He said that once a replacement takes office in the 50th District, staffers would be free to speak to the press.

A spokesman for Washington-based congressional watchdog group Public Citizen said he believed House Republican leaders were inappropriately restricting access to the press and thus cheating the public of learning more about Cunningham's conduct in office.

"This is a self-serving political gag order and designed to protect the image of the House and specifically Republican members," said Craig Holman of the group, described as a nonprofit organization that "advocates" for consumers.

After Cunningham resigned from office late last year and pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery and tax evasion, most of his staff members continued to work at the 50th District office, which represents a stretch of North County from Escondido to Del Mar.

But once Cunningham, a Vietnam War ace, stepped down, the House of Representatives' office of the clerk took over the management of his office. Former Cunningham staffers may continue to work in that office until a temporary replacement is elected this spring to serve out the remainder of the term, which is up in December.

Brandt said that those who ignore orders not to speak with the press would have to face the consequences.

"If they violate (the) policy, that is their decision and they will have to answer to the clerk's office," Brandt said.

Holman said that before Cunningham's guilty pleas it clearly was appropriate to prevent staffers from speaking with the press on the ground that the criminal investigation might be jeopardized.

But once Cunningham entered guilty pleas, everything changed, Holman said.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for another Washington watchdog group echoed Holman's statements.

"By denying transparency, which is a purported goal of this Congress, through restricted access to (former U.S.) Rep. Cunningham's staff, the committee has eliminated any chance for insight into the inner workings of Cunningham's office of corruption," said Naomi Steiner, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that uses the legal system to go after politicians they label as corrupt. The group is led by a former federal prosecutor who worked for several Democratic House members prior to joining the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C.

Cheney Mum About GOP Senate Candidate - CBS News

(CBS/AP) When Vice President Dick Cheney went campaigning in Florida on Monday, there were two words conspicuous by their absence: Katherine Harris.

"As vice president, I look forward to the opportunity to swear in a new Republican senator to serve next to Mel Martinez in the United States Senate," Cheney said during a re-election luncheon for Rep. Clay Shaw in Boca Raton. He didn't mention Harris, a Florida Congresswoman who's regarded as the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination to run against incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in November.

Later Monday, speaking to a crowd of Collier County Republicans in Naples — and with Harris in the audience — Cheney again avoided mentioning her.

Cheney's failing to name Harris specifically as that "new senator" at a pair of events is triggering questions about the condition of Harris' campaign.

Last week, Harris responded to claims that she had accepted campaign funds in 2004 that were illegally donated through embroiled defense contractor Mitchell Wade. On March 2, Harris released a statement saying she was unaware that accepting contributions associated with Wade, who pleaded guilty to bribery in the Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., case, was illegal.

Wade said that at a 2005 dinner with Harris, the two discussed a possible fundraiser for her as well as obtaining funding for a Navy counterintelligence program involving his company. The plan also called for a location in Harris' district.

Harris explained that she "requested a $10 million appropriation for the U.S Naval Criminal Investigative Services project" because she thought "it would bring new jobs to Sarasota.

"I never requested funding for this project in exchange for any contributions, but rather to bring more high-skill, high-wage jobs to the region," she insisted.

In an apparent effort to scale back her public appearances during the controversy, Harris canceled a number of campaign stops, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. GOP consultant David Johnson told the paper that, "It looks like her campaign is circling the wagons."

But spokesperson Morgan Dobbs denies that Harris is slowing down or plans to leave the race, telling CBSNews.com that Harris "remains undaunted in her quest to represent the people and issues she cares about most in the United States Senate."

In a Quinnipiac University poll released in late February, Harris trailed Nelson by 53 percent to 31 percent.

It's not certain whether Cheney's failure to mention Harris by name was a deliberate attempt to distance himself and the GOP from her as she is entangled in scandal, or simply an unintentional oversight

"Cheney is not the most skilled campaigner when it comes to retail politics," Hotline senior editor John Mercurio says, adding that the non-mention of Harris "doesn't necessarily reflect Republican sentiments" toward her.

However, Mercurio points out, "things couldn't possibly be going worse" for Harris, and there may be "reluctance on the part of the White House to say Katherine Harris will be the next senator because her campaign is in disarray."

The fact that Cheney left Harris out of his speech is "in and of itself not significant," Mercurio explains, but the perception of it seems to be.

When asked how Harris reacted to being omitted from Cheney's comments, Dobbs noted that Harris was at the Naples event with the Vice President and that she rode back to Washington with him on Air Force 2. "It is always an honor to be invited to appear with the Vice President of the United States," Dobbs added.

NBCSandiego.com - News - Cunningham's Life About To Change Again

SAN DIEGO -- Life for Randy "Duke" Cunningham has changed, of course, and it is about to change again.

The corrupt former congressman, who was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for bribery, is currently staying at San Diego's Metropolitan Correctional Facility.

There are modest amenities provided to Cunningham at the facility, but he is not able to move around, and he has only the basics available to him in his cell.

"Toilet and a bed," attorney Knut Johnson told NBC 7/39. "There'll be other prisoners in that little quad, and sometimes they'll communicate by shouting back and forth to each other."

Because Cunningham's meals are brought to him, he does not go to a common dining area. He has already had a medical checkup and talked with a psychologist.

The disgraced congressman's stay in San Diego will be over soon. At some point in the next three days, he will be sent to a federal facility for a medical evaluation, and when those results are determined, he will be sent to a federal prison, possibly one in Taft, Calif..

If that destination is Taft, which his attorneys requested, he will be incarcerated with people who have been convicted of -- among other things -- fraud and possibly alien smuggling. Some prisoners at Taft have been transferred from higher-security prisons because of good behavior.

Johnson has provided advice and information to people headed to federal prison.

"You have to take a breath and relax, and understand that -- particularly someone in Duke Cunningham's position -- they're not going into a prison with a lot of violent and dangerous prisoners," said Johnson.

With good behavior, Cunningham could be out of custody in seven years and one month.