Friends' reactions

February 27, 2006

Presented last week with new revelations about the unbelievable nerve of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, two men who count the resigned congressman as a friend had decidedly different reactions.

The gentlemen are Republican congressmen, as Cunningham was, and are fellow San Diegans. From one of them comes a sense of betrayal. From the other, loyalty to the bitter end.

When reports first surfaced that Cunningham, a former Navy fighter pilot, had sold his Del Mar-area home at an inflated price to a defense contractor whom he later helped to win federal business, there was still plenty of support for Cunningham among House Republicans, especially given Cunningham's declarations of innocence and/or ignorance about the housing deal.

But Cunningham's culpability and brazenness became shockingly evident when prosecutors on Feb. 17 released a “bribe menu” the former congressman had scrawled on his own congressional notepad laying out how much he would charge contractors to steer federal dollars their way.

“I defended him when he said he was innocent,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista. “A lot of us . . . gave this fellow the benefit of the doubt because he looked us directly in the eye and said he didn't know he was selling (the house) for too much. But he knew he had conspired to get bribes. He had figured out his commission, if you will, on his wrongful conduct.”

Issa even suggested that Cunningham's transgressions have “risen to a level much more like treason.”

Issa, who made millions in the car-alarm business before running for office, offered a bit of psychology on how Cunningham, a highly decorated war hero, could have fallen so far.

“Duke's biggest outward sign that he was . . . not completely happy with his situation were comments that he made – that half the members of Congress make – and it goes something like this: 'You're so lucky you made your money before you came here. I should have done that before I went into public service,' ” Issa said. “Republicans and Democrats make statements that would lead you to believe their discontentment has to do with money, and with a belief that they could have had money except they sacrificed themselves in name of public service.”

This apparent longing for more wealth, Issa said, can lead lawmakers to believe they are entitled to “cash out” when they leave Congress by becoming lobbyists. To secure their future self-interest, he said, it can lead them to become too cozy with former lawmakers who already have become lobbyists. Finally, he said, it can lead to lawmakers' willingness to accept inappropriate gifts such as privately funded trips that “sometimes have nothing to do with real fact-finding.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, probably did more than anyone to help Cunningham win his seat 16 years ago and to groom him while he was in Congress. To the very end, Hunter is intent on supporting his hunting partner and fellow war veteran.

Hunter declined to voice an opinion on the “bribe menu.” He faulted federal prosecutors, saying they are “putting their case forward in the newspapers, which they're not supposed to do.”

Hunter claims prosecutors knew about the document long ago, but revealed it only recently to bolster their recommendation for a maximum 10-year prison term when Cunningham is sentenced Friday.

“There have been what I would consider inflammatory stories describing him as a flashy pilot,” said Hunter, pointing out, as he often does, that Cunningham is a former Vietnam War flying ace and “Top Gun” Navy flight instructor. “He wasn't a flashy pilot. The decorations Duke got were . . . for risking his life for the people of this country. I just hope that the judge considers that.”

Hunter said as much in the two-page letter, which included a copy of Cunningham's Navy Cross citation, that he submitted to the court arguing for a sentence that is “balanced against” the former congressman's “more than 300 combat missions.”

Meanwhile, Hunter plans to propose a rule requiring the House Ethics Committee to verify that each privately funded trip that congressional lawmakers take is a genuine fact-finding mission, not a junket designed to win favor.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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