San Diego Union Tribune

December 16, 2005

Panel faulted over Cunningham probe
Democrat wants nonpartisan staff

By Toby Eckert and Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – The House Intelligence Committee is not being aggressive enough in its investigation of the work that former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham did on the panel while he was accepting bribes from defense contractors, the committee's top Democrat said yesterday.

A decision by Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., to use the committee's existing staff for the review "threatens to compromise our ability to conduct a thorough, expeditious and bipartisan investigation," Rep. Jane Harman, D-Venice, complained. "Existing staff cannot be expected to investigate their bosses."

A temporary staff "with extensive investigative experience and appropriate security clearances" should be hired, Harman said in a written statement.

"That staff must be totally nonpartisan or, if partisan, must have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Investigative staff should be supervised by the House counsel or the House inspector general and report to the committee," she said.

A spokesman for Hoekstra indicated that nothing had been ruled out.

"This process is still ongoing," said Republican committee spokesman Jamal Ware. "The chairman and ranking member are still in discussions about how to carry this out. But the chairman is not going to conduct this inquiry through the press."

Asked whether the review had begun yet, Ware said: "I'm not really in a position to say what they have and haven't done. This is obviously still in its preliminary phase."

Hoekstra ordered the review by committee attorneys after Cunningham, a Republican from Rancho Santa Fe, pleaded guilty last month to taking $2.4 million in bribes to steer federal work to the contractors.

Hoekstra also requested a meeting with Justice Department officials to discuss their ongoing investigation of the scandal.

As a member of the committee, Cunningham was privy to sensitive and top-secret information about U.S. intelligence work and hardware. Hoekstra asked the staff attorneys to review legislation and programs the committee handled for signs of improper influence by Cunningham.

Harman said she and Hoekstra have met with House counsel and Justice Department officials and discussed how to conduct an investigation.

The House defense appropriations subcommittee, another panel to which Cunningham belonged, launched a similar review.

That panel's spokesmen did not respond to repeated requests for information on the committee's review of funding items Cunningham had requested.

A Defense Department spokeswoman said, "The appropriate organizations of the department are looking into the matter" of contracts awarded to the firms allegedly involved in bribing Cunningham – Washington-based MZM Inc. and Poway-based ADCS Inc.

Both companies had defense and intelligence contracts.

The spokeswoman, Marine Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch, would not elaborate on what organizations were conducting the review, but the Pentagon inspector general probably would be involved.

Harman is the latest Democrat to question whether Republicans, who control Congress, are conducting a thorough-enough review of the Cunningham scandal.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, has called for the creation of a bipartisan committee to "investigate Mr. Cunningham's criminal activities as they pertain to the business of the House of Representatives and particularly the possibility of his misuse of his official position in a manner which may have compromised national security."

Pelosi and other Democrats have been highlighting the Cunningham scandal among several high-profile investigations of Republicans that could pose a problem for the GOP in next year's congressional elections.

House and Senate Democrats are planning a "rally" today on Capitol Hill to highlight the issue.

Cunningham's guilty plea and resignation raise "important national security issues," Harman said.

"It's critical that we know whether he compromised classified information or used committee resources or staff to steer part of the intelligence budget to (contractors) in exchange for bribes," she said.

One outside expert who has been closely following the Cunningham case endorsed Harman's call for a more independent probe.

"I think it's a matter of some urgency for the committee to free itself of any taint by association," said Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "The way to do that is to act with an abundance of caution and, if anything, to err on the side of greater scrutiny."

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