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 risked putting those troops in greater peril as long as it meant money for him.
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 from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
In the end, Cunningham was a portrait of contradictions and inconsistencies, with his treatment of those troops only the most glaring.
The ever-macho tough guy, he took bribes to buy a 19th Century Louis Phillipe commode. The family man, he liked to invite women to his yacht. There, two of them told Copley News Service, he would change into pajama bottoms and a turtleneck sweater to entertain them with chilled champagne by the light of his favorite 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, Calif., business executive Brent Wilkes. Wilkes is president of ADCS, a defense contracting firm. But these days, according to sources, he is better known as “Coconspirator 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 Coconspirators Nos. 1 and 2 was in the best interest of the country.”
Considering one of those contracts was to find better ways to protect American troops from roadside bombs in Iraq, that alone is an admission that would bring shame to Cunningham. But there are many more admissions in that document — enough to catapult him, amazingly, to the top of the historical list for corruption in Congress.
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