San Diego Union Tribune

March 1, 2006

Ex-aide says boss's actions troubled him

By Joe Cantlupe 

WASHINGTON – As former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham's chief of staff, David Heil was troubled over a car deal between the congressman and a defense contractor.

It didn't seem right.

When Heil expressed concern about the low price Cunningham paid for the 1999 Chevy Suburban, the Rancho Santa Fe Republican was furious.

Cunningham slammed his hand on his desk and yelled at Heil, according to Justice Department documents released last month.

Cursing, he told Heil to stay out of “my personal business.” Cunningham later apologized, Heil said.

Over time, Heil said, he became increasingly troubled as more questions surfaced over Cunningham's activities.

Heil, 39, who was Cunningham's top aide for 2˝ years, confirmed his identity as the staffer described in Justice Department pre-sentencing documents who was “deeply troubled” over his boss's transgressions and who told authorities about some of the congressman's bribery schemes.

“This has caused me a lot of anxiety, something that has been bottled up inside me now for more than a year,” Heil said, breaking his silence on the issue this week. “It's something I just felt not comfortable talking about. I didn't even tell my wife about it.”

A year after Heil confronted Cunningham over the car payment, there was another blowup. This time, Heil said, he gave the congressman a list of complaints. Cunningham was getting cash from defense contractor Mitchell Wade, there was a problem with Cunningham selling his house for an inflated price to Wade, and there were other questions over payments stemming from a boat purchase.

It's going to become public, Heil told Cunningham. Something is going to happen. Quit now, or don't run for office again.

Heil resigned in March 2005 to take a job as a lobbyist after the confrontations with the former congressman. Cunningham resigned in November after pleading guilty to tax evasion, honest-services fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery.

On Friday, Cunningham is scheduled to be sentenced by a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

In an interview, Heil refused to discuss certain aspects of the investigation, saying he has hired two lawyers to deal with Justice Department and FBI questions.

Although he would not discuss the government findings in the pre-sentencing report, Heil said they were accurate. He refused to comment on any meetings with investigators.

Heil said it was not until the end of his time working for Cunningham that he suspected any criminal activity, but he struggled mightily over ethical issues posed by the congressman's behavior.

“The way I look at it now, I was just doing my job,” Heil said. “I was looking after my (Congress) member and trying to navigate the political environment.”

He said that for a long time, he “thought we were just dealing with ethical issues, basically, things that might not pass muster with the ethics committee. We never got into the realm I perceived to be criminal, not until the end.”

Heil said he brooded for months after talking to Justice Department investigators in the wake of disclosures about Cunningham's corrupt activities.

“I would sit at home on the couch, and my wife would say, 'You aren't watching TV; you are just staring there.' She was seeing the steam come out,” Heil said.

Heil said that before he resigned, he had what he thought was a close relationship with Cunningham, sometimes going hunting or fishing together.

“I enjoyed spending time (with Cunningham). He was a regular, down-to-earth guy,” said Heil, who is married and the father of two.

Heil began working for Cunningham in December 2002, after four years as chief of staff to then-Rep. John Isaakson, R-Ga. Before that, he served four years as legislative director for Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who is under government investigation for his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

A year after he joined Cunningham's staff, Heil had his first confrontation with the congressman over a questionable purchase.

In 2003, Cunningham bought a 1999 Chevy Suburban from Wade for $10,000, according to the Justice Department documents.

“In an attempt to right, and conceal, this obviously corrupt transaction, Cunningham's staffers altered the California Department of Motor Vehicles title registration application to reflect the $18,000 sales price, rather than the actual $10,000 sales price, and asked Cunningham to make up the difference,” the document said. “Cunningham did not.”

Months later, in June 2004, defense contractor Wade took a cash-filled envelope to a fundraiser at the Caucus Room restaurant in Washington, D.C., “where he gave it to a third party with instructions that it was for Cunningham,” the government documents said.

Cunningham told Heil that the envelope contained Wade's half of $13,000 in repairs to the Duke-Stir, the boat Wade had bought for Cunningham's use. (On Friday, Wade cited the cash payment as part of his guilty plea to conspiring to funnel more than $1 million in bribes to Cunningham and making illegal campaign contributions to two other members of Congress.)

Eventually, Heil confronted Cunningham over his relationship with Wade, including the defense contractor's purchase of Cunningham's house for $1.675 million. Wade sold the house eight months later at a $700,000 loss.

Heil said that after he read Cunningham's plea agreement, he got “sick to my stomach.” Still, he said he hopes the former fighter pilot will receive a lenient sentence.

“Duke has already paid a very heavy toll,” Heil said. “He's admitted he's done wrong.”

»Next Story»