San Diego Union Tribune

June 15, 2005

Cunningham's Realtor a longtime contributor

By Marcus Stern

WASHINGTON – A Realtor who Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham said had set a fair and independent price for the controversial November 2003 sale of his Del Mar home to a defense contractor was a longtime contributor to the Rancho Santa Fe Republican.

U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham purchased a $2.55 million house in Rancho Santa Fe.
Realtor Elizabeth Todd and two family members have made 18 separate contributions totaling $11,500 to Cunningham's congressional campaign committee since 1997, according to records at the Federal Election Commission.

The lawmaker also hired her and paid her a commission for the $2.55 million Rancho Santa Fe house that he acquired immediately after selling the Del Mar house. And the defense contractor hired her to sell the Del Mar house after he purchased it from Cunningham.

Cunningham has elicited sharp public criticism since Copley News Service, in an article published Sunday in The San Diego Union-Tribune, disclosed that he sold his Del Mar house in November 2003 to Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor. Wade put the Del Mar house back on the market shortly after buying it, where it remained unsold and vacant for more than eight months. It eventually sold for $700,000 less than what Wade had paid Cunningham.

Property records don't list Wade or his company MZM Inc. as the buyer of Cunningham's house. Instead, the records state that Cunningham sold the house to 1523 New Hampshire Avenue LLC. Nevada state business records show that Wade owns that company, too. It is the address of his Washington, D.C., office.

The congressman, a member of the influential House defense appropriations subcommittee, said in an interview last week that he has supported Wade's efforts to win tens of millions of dollars in defense contracts.

Monday, Cunningham's congressional office released a two-paragraph statement that is his only known public comment on the transaction since its disclosure. He defended it, saying Wade had "received comparables from an independent source establishing the value of the home."

Cunningham last week identified the person who set the price as Todd. In a separate interview last week, Todd, of the Willis Allen Co. in Del Mar, confirmed that she sent Wade the "comps" and set the asking price for Cunningham.

Based solely on those comps, Wade accepted the asking price, according to Cunningham and Todd. Neither Cunningham nor Todd has responded to telephone calls since the story was published.

Cunningham came under partisan attack yesterday, with an aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, saying that Cunningham's house transaction "is precisely the sort of allegation that a nonpartisan, functioning (House) ethics committee would consider. Did Mr. Cunningham receive an illegal gift . . . or violate provisions of the criminal code that prohibit the receipt of something of value in return for official action? Or was this a fair market home sale?"

Revelations of the deal have sparked outrage in Cunningham's district, which includes several North County communities, such as Del Mar, Carlsbad, Encinitas, San Marcos and Escondido. Much of the anger has focused on the question of how a house could sit on the market for eight months and sell at a loss of $700,000 when prices were sharply rising and many houses were receiving multiple offers above the asking price almost immediately upon being listed.

Said San Diego Realtor Christian Peter: "In November 2003, property values increased approximately 20 percent on a year-to-year basis in San Diego County. A $700,000 loss would be unheard of, and anyone who bought property in 2003 and held onto it for any period of time should have made a significant amount of profit."

A Copley News Service review of the comps for Cunningham's neighborhood during the approximate time of the sale show an array of houses of vastly different sizes and views selling for $700,000 to $1.7 million.

This indicates that Todd might have set the price at the high end of the range when she set it at $1,675,000. However, the eight months it languished on the market and its subsequent sale for $975,000 during a seller's market suggest a value closer to the low end, according to real estate professionals interviewed for this article.

Another aspect of the transaction that perplexed experts who were interviewed yesterday is why Wade, who lives in Washington, D.C., would accept the asking price set by Todd after only looking at a list of comparable house sales.

The next step in a normal arms-length transaction would have been to have a Realtor or appraiser drive by the houses to see if the house being purchased was more like houses at the upper end of the range or more like houses at the lower end of the range, according to several experts.

Ordinarily, an appraisal would be required if a house were being financed. But there is no record of a deed of trust being taken out by Wade on the purchase of the house, indicating that he paid in cash.

Wade has remained unavailable for comment about the transaction.

Last week, in his interview with Copley News Service, Cunningham said Wade had requested comps from the lawmaker when he heard he wanted to sell his house.

"So they sent Mr. Wade some comps. And (Todd) actually set the price. Said, 'I can get this for it.' And Mr. Wade agreed, accepted. And we sold the house."

While Todd provided the comps and set the asking price, neither she nor anyone at Willis Allen was a party to the eventual sale, a private transaction between Cunningham and Wade that did not involve any real estate agents.

Despite Wade's substantial loss on the house, Cunningham said the two never really discussed the sale after it took place.

"No. I mean it was none of my business," Cunningham said last week. "I had a market price from Willis Allen . . . And they said this is what the house will sell for. And I don't know about you but, when I had a house in Clairemont, when I had one in Mira Mesa, I just tried to get the most out of the house that I possibly could, and I bet you would, too. "

Contributing to this report were Copley News Service correspondents Dana Wilkie, Joe Cantlupe, Jerry Kammer and special correspondent Rosemary Petersen. Marcus Stern:

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