San Diego Union Tribune

February 22, 2006

Former comrades angered by 'bribe menu'
Cunningham's list appalling, they say

By Toby Eckert

WASHINGTON – The stunning disclosure that former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham maintained a “bribe menu” had some of his former colleagues fuming yesterday.

Most of the top leaders in both parties have withheld comment in the four days since prosecutors revealed the depth of Cunningham's corrupt practices in a sentencing memo released Friday in San Diego. But individual members said they were shocked to learn that Cunningham maintained a handwritten list of how much he would charge defense contractors to steer government dollars to them.

“It's heartbreaking,” said a visibly upset Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was in San Diego yesterday.

“It's just unbelievable,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. “This sanctimonious guy was just so judgmental, and he just dripped with his concern for our troops. This guy just makes you almost want to vomit to hear that, knowing how he tried to represent himself as this virtuous guy who was so much morally superior to anyone who would question the war” in Iraq.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, said prosecutors were justified in seeking the maximum 10 years in prison for Cunningham, who pleaded guilty in November to accepting $2.4 million in bribes. He will be sentenced March 3.

“Although I don't want to see anybody rot in jail for the sake of rotting in jail, the damage done to the confidence of the people of San Diego, of the whole country, has risen to a level much more like treason,” Issa said. “I believe that anything less is going to send the wrong message about how . . . you should treat somebody who betrays the public trust at this level.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, perhaps Cunningham's closest friend in Congress, refused to comment about the bribe menu. Instead, he faulted federal prosecutors, saying that although they probably knew about the bribe menu long ago, they are now “eking out their most damaging evidence . . . to bolster their position.”

The revelation about the bribe menu seemed to catch the capital city off guard, coming as it did when Congress was shutting down for the Washington's Birthday holiday recess. The news also came amid signs that the push for ethics reform – spawned by the Cunningham scandal and another involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff – is faltering.

Representatives of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not respond to requests for comment.

Jim Specht, spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, did not reply to phone calls and e-mail messages. Cunningham, a Republican from Rancho Santa Fe, used his seat on the Appropriations Committee to help steer contracts to Poway-based ADCS Inc. and Washington-based MZM Inc.

Some lawmakers said Cunningham was an aberration.

“I think the vast majority of members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, are honest and hard-working, and there isn't a single walk of life that doesn't have its corruption, whether it's business or labor or religion or journalism,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “These things happen, and those of us who do our best to be honest have to make an extra effort to restore the public confidence.”

But those who monitor congressional ethics say that is hard to square with the Abramoff scandal, which has touched numerous lawmakers and is still unfolding, and with other controversies in recent years.

“The one-bad-apple-in-the-basket explanation . . . diminishes the actual problem we've seen,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight. “It's time for Congress . . . to look at itself and the way that it works currently.”

Since the Cunningham scandal broke, lawmakers have made numerous proposals to rein in secretive spending measures called “earmarks” that Congress members insert into spending bills for pet projects and favored contracts. Earmarking was at the heart of Cunningham's effort to steer contracts to MZM and ADCS.

Most of the proposals would require earmarks to be publicly disclosed a day or two before a spending bill is voted on, link them to a particular member and make it easier to excise those that draw objections.

“There are good earmarks and bad earmarks,” said Feinstein, who is co-sponsoring one of the proposals and had just met with San Diego-area officials about projects they would like to see funded. “What (Cunningham) did was a bad earmark. He essentially received money or goods for putting an earmark in the budget.”

Other proposed reforms include a ban on travel funded by special-interest groups, stricter limits on meals and other gifts, and a longer “cooling off” period before former lawmakers and congressional staffers can cash in on their political connections by becoming lobbyists.

But some of the reform proposals have run into strong resistance from lawmakers. Republican leaders delayed unveiling a reform package after Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, was elected House majority leader and signaled that he preferred more public disclosure to bans and other limits.

“Sunlight is always the greatest disinfectant with regards to the nexus of what lobbyists are petitioning Congress for and what Congress is legislating on,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden said.

Former legislators and longtime congressional observers say that in the past, Congress has tightened its ethics and campaign finance rules only after sustained public pressure.

“There's a very strong reluctance on the part of Congress to reform itself,” said former Vice President Walter Mondale, a member of the Senate Finance Committee in the 1970s. “This cozy thing of going on golf trips or going to fancy events . . . is very seductive. If people think the issue is dying they say, 'Well, let's just leave it this way.' ”

Copley News Service correspondents Dana Wilkie, Dori Meinert, Jerry Kammer, Paul Krawzak, Finlay Lewis and Joe Cantlupe and Union-Tribune staff writer Onell R. Soto contributed to this report.

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