San Diego Union Tribune

November 30, 2005

Cunningham staff devastated at extent of corruption
Aides 'all shocked about how deep this went'

By Joe Cantlupe

WASHINGTON – He may never set foot in his office on Capitol Hill again, but Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham called his office yesterday to talk about administrative matters – including the letter of resignation he is soon expected to send to the clerk of the House.

LAURA EMBRY / Union-Tribune
Staff assistant Lauren Nicole Chaikin worked in the waiting room of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's Escondido office, which is filled with the former Navy flying ace's plaques and military memorabilia.

A staffer said Cunningham sounded stressed and solemn a day after the congressman stood tearfully in San Diego federal court and pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges.

The staff members looked devastated.

In June, when it became obvious their boss was under federal investigation, all of them apparently decided to stick with him. Several said that until Monday's announcement they didn't have a clue about the extent of his corrupt activities, which included taking $2.4 million in cash, yachts, Persian rugs, antique French commodes and a Rolls-Royce from defense contractors.

"I can't fathom all of this, I just can't," said one staffer, who has worked for Cunningham for several years and called him a "good boss."

"We're pretty much all shocked about how deep this went," added the staffer, who like others spoke on the condition that no names be used because of the sensitivity of the matter. "It's mind-blowing. There is definitely this sense that he lied to us. We had stuck up for him."

A corkboard in the office showed pictures of Randy Cunningham in better days. The Rancho Santa Fe lawmaker, whose sentencing is set for Feb. 27, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes.
The Rolls-Royce was especially surprising. "I never saw him in one," the staffer said.

At Cunningham's San Diego County office, on the top floor of a three-story building in downtown Escondido, there was a similar air of tension yesterday as workers tried to carry out their jobs. When staff members saw the media they just turned and walked away.

Cunningham's staff – a total of 18 people in Washington and San Diego – will continue working until his successor is chosen. Most have been with him for several years, some of them longer.

Under federal law, offices of congressional representatives who die or resign are supervised by the clerk of the House until successors are named or elected, said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the House Administration Committee.

Constituents in Cunningham's 50th District will still be able to get help on matters ranging from Social Security to Veterans Affairs, but the office can no longer take positions on public policy or offer analysis, Walsh said.

Cunningham's top aide, Harmony Allen, will run the two offices with help from the clerk of the House.

"We want to continue to work for the district," said Allen, who appeared subdued as she began coping with her new situation.

Cunningham was sometimes brusque with political opponents, but in his office he was often bright and cheery and willing to listen to young staffers' advice on legislative priorities and voting strategy, aides said.

They said the 15-year congressman, who turns 64 on Dec. 8, was a straight shooter.

The walls of both the Washington and Escondido offices are decorated with plaques and photographs showing the Rancho Santa Fe Republican doing everything from posing with a Girl Scout troop to shaking hands with Vice President Dick Cheney.

One picture shows Cunningham with President Bush, who yesterday called Cunningham's actions "outrageous."

Yesterday, the Washington staff fielded occasional calls from constituents, some expressing support for Cunningham, others sharing their anger at what the congressman had done.

"There was someone who called about the Iraq war – we're still getting general calls about the federal government that Duke always gets," one staffer said.

Cunningham is expected to send a mover to pack up the personal belongings that are still on his Capitol desk. A staffer said they'll be sent to him in California.

Staff writer Adam Klawonn contributed to this report.

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