San Diego Union Tribune

December 1, 2005

Congressman's betrayal of troops called greatest sin
Cronies' deals may have put GIs at risk

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON – Rep. Randy Cunningham's dramatic fall from power represents more than just a historic case of personal corruption unprecedented in the long history of the Congress. It is also betrayal on a grand scale.

Cunningham betrayed his friends, his constituents, his colleagues and, certainly most important, the U.S. combat troops he so loudly championed.

By steering contracts vital to the Iraq war effort to cronies, he may have put those troops at greater risk by judging contracts more for what they would do for him than for the military.

That – even more than his manifest dishonesty, personal bullying of opponents and slight legislative record – may turn out to be the most shameful legacy of the now-disgraced Republican.

"This is nauseating at so many levels," said Norm Ornstein, a veteran congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

What Cunningham, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, did, said Ornstein, "is worse than just taking money. It is taking money and undermining everything he presumably stood for."

In the end, Cunningham was a portrait of contradictions and inconsistencies.

The ever-macho tough guy, he took bribes to buy two 19th-century commodes, or chests of drawers. The family man, he liked to invite women to his yacht. There, two women told Copley News Service, he would change into pajama bottoms and a turtleneck sweater to entertain them with chilled champagne by the light of a lava lamp.

Duke Cunningham's Washington was populated primarily by his fellow Republicans and lobbyists – always and everywhere, lobbyists.

His favorite restaurant was the Capital Grille, a Republican haven midway between the Capitol and the lobbyist office suites of K Street.

There, where cigar smoking is as encouraged as the four-pound lobsters and 24-ounce Porterhouse steaks, Cunningham could be found dining with lobbyists amid the wood paneling, brass fixtures and private wine lockers with engraved plaques.

One of those private lockers – its wine always available to Cunningham – was maintained by Poway business executive Brent Wilkes. Wilkes is president of ADCS Inc., a defense contracting firm.

But these days, according to sources, he is better known as "Co-conspirator No. 1," the wording used in the 33-page legal filing that spells out Cunningham's corruption.

Cunningham's Washington meant launching biting partisan attacks and questioning the patriotism of his foes, all based on ostensible fealty to what was best for the troops, while in reality putting his own enrichment as his top priority.

A look back at some of his most scathing denunciations of fellow veteran Sen. John Kerry last year shows that some of them came on the same days he was getting checks for as much as $500,000 in bribe money.

Cunningham has now confessed that he steered defense contracts because of that bribe money "and not because using Co-conspirators Nos. 1 and 2 was in the best interest of the country."

The congressman, of course, would argue that the contracts were legitimate. But the fact that Cunningham's judgment was clouded by his own financial interests makes it impossible not to question them.

Particularly sobering is the fact that one of those contracts was to find better ways to protect American troops from roadside bombs in Iraq.

Beyond the contracts, the sheer volume of bribes is enough to catapult him, amazingly, to the top of the historical list for corruption in Congress.

The House historian reports that 9,869 men and women have served in Congress since the country's founding, and just under a dozen have been convicted of accepting bribes.

But none could match Cunningham for audacity.

The Credit Mobilier scandal involved hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to help grease the completion of the intercontinental railroad in the 1860s.

The Abscam sting netted several members in 1978, but the average bribe for each congressman was about $45,000. And Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., pocketed about $500,000 in the early 1990s.

Most recently, Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted for receiving several thousand dollars in bribes.

All were big scandals. But together they do not approach the venality of the $2.4 million Cunningham has admitted receiving.

"There is nothing close to this in history in terms of the money involved," said Ornstein.

Ray Smock, the former historian of the House, said, "It is truly a monumental piece of bribery." Smock is now director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University and the president of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress.

"This is unbelievable," he said. "Even hard-core cynics who are used to Washington scandals, and even those who assume that all of them are on the take, their eyebrows are way up on this one."

Smock lived through some of those previous scandals, but he said this one is far different. "This one is gut-churning in its blatancy."

Smock said he could not explain how a strong supporter of the military could take such chances on contracts vital to the troops.

"It does sound like he was playing pretty fast and loose with lives," he said. "I don't think there was any question about him being an authentic supporter of the military. But at some point that went sour, and that's the real tragedy.

"It does look like it became a huge effort to cash in regardless of anything else."

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