US: Feds Seek 10 Years for Former Congressman on Bribe Charges

Prosecutors have asked a federal judge to sentence former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to the maximum 10 years in prison for putting "a 'for sale' sign upon our nation's capital" and taking more than $2.4 million in bribes.
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San Diego Union-Tribune

Prosecutors have asked a federal judge to sentence former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to the maximum 10 years in prison for putting "a 'for sale' sign upon our nation's capital" and taking more than $2.4 million in bribes.

"Cunningham used his status as a war hero to get into Congress, and then he used his Congressional office to get rich," prosecutors wrote in papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego yesterday afternoon.




Federal prosecutors say the"naked avarice" of Randy "Duke" Cunningham is displayed in this handwritten "bribe menu," laying out successive amounts ofgovernment contracts that could be "ordered" and the amounts in bribes demanded in return. For example, a $16 million contract was offered in exchangefor a $140,000 boat. A million more, for $17 million total, would cost an additional $50,000.

Defense lawyers also filed sentencing papers yesterday but asked for a six-year prison term for Cunningham, who is 64 and has battled prostate cancer.

Lawyer K. Lee Blalack II called the prosecution's recommendation sad, but unsurprising.

"For a man of Duke's age and medical condition, such punishment would likely be a death sentence," he said. "Duke devoted most of his life to serving this nation honorably in times of war and peace. If such a man doesn't warrant mercy, no one does."

U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns is scheduled to sentence Cunningham on March 3.

The prosecutors' papers listed previously untold details of Cunningham's crimes, including a "bribe menu" found on Cunningham's boat that detailed in his own writing how much it would cost Pentagon contractors for each million dollars in business steered their way.

The menu offered a $16 million contract in exchange for a $140,000 yacht. The bribes then grew by $50,000 for every $1 million in additional funding, according to the list, which included a volume discount as the contracts grew.

Other disclosures included:

Cunningham used his staff members to improperly influence government officials to benefit the corrupt contractors.

Cunningham awkwardly scrambled to cover up the bribes when he realized that the re-sale of his Del Mar-area house would look bad when discovered. He demanded a real estate agent write a letter saying the housing market tanked in 2004, which was untrue. The agent, Elizabeth Todd, declined to comment yesterday, according to her husband.

In August, after the FBI had already been looking into the case for months, he tried to get a rug dealer and one of her workers to lie for him.

In late 2004, a congressional staffer confronted Cunningham with evidence of his corruption and demanded he resign or agree not to seek re-election. When Cunningham rebuffed that request, the staffer quit.


Cunningham demanded this check for $115,100 - made out to his memorabilia company and deposited into his personal bank account - to help pay the capital gains tax on the saleof his Del Mar-area home.

Cunningham stuffed an Arlington, Va., condominium with ill-gotten antiques and other furnishings - "many more items than that condominium could reasonably hold" - in preparation for moving them to a Rancho Santa Fe home purchased partly with bribe money. "He was preparing to feather his nest in San Diego," prosecutors said.

Cunningham had some of the bribe items delivered to his congressional offices - expensive rugs to his Escondido office, a sophisticated shooting game to his Capitol office.

"The length, breadth, and depth of Cunningham's crimes against the people of the United States are unprecedented for a sitting Member of Congress. So, too, should be his sentence," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sanjay Bhandari, Jason Forge and Phillip Halpern wrote in the sentencing papers. "For the better part of a decade, Cunningham, in effect, erected a 'for sale' sign upon our nation's capital."

Cunningham's efforts to conceal his corruption began to unravel after The San Diego Union-Tribune published a Copley News Service story June 12 describing his sale of the Del Mar-area home for $1.675 million.

The buyer, defense contractor Mitchell Wade, sold the home at a $700,000 loss less than a year later.

Cunningham and his wife used the proceeds from the sale to buy a home in Rancho Santa Fe for $2.55 million.

A federal investigation into his dealings with defense contractors and other businessmen began shortly after the June 12 article.

Cunningham pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to tax evasion and conspiracy to commit bribery, as well as honest-services fraud.

He has separated from his wife, Nancy, and now lives in a bunkhouse on a friend's ranch and performs manual labor to pay for his room and board, his lawyers said.

The ranch is owned by Dan McKinnon. McKinnon, the son of former San Diego Rep. Clinton McKinnon, is the former owner of KSON radio, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1980 and was chairman of the federal Civil Aeronautics Board in the Reagan administration.

Cunningham, a Republican, resigned from office after pleading guilty.

His departure has set off a frenzied competition in the heavily Republican 50th Congressional District, which stretches from Escondido and Carlsbad down to La Jolla and northern portions of San Diego.

There are now 15 candidates, from retired government workers to veteran politicians, actively seeking the post. Twelve of the candidates are Republicans.

The election to complete the last six months of Cunningham's eighth term will be held April 11. The election for the next full term is in November.

The prosecutors described Cunningham's actions as "unparalleled corruption."

Their 29-page sentencing memorandum is stunning in its detail and its length, said University of San Diego law professor Shaun Martin.

The papers include a number of photos, including one of Cunningham posing with a Rolls-Royce he bought with bribe money.

Martin said prosecutors rightly reprinted the "bribe menu" early in the filing.

"This is an incredibly damning - and persuasive - piece of evidence," he said. "Given this document, and the many other damning pieces of evidence described in the government's sentencing memorandum, I would be stunned if Cunningham was sentenced to anything other than 10 years in prison."

Prosecutors say Cunningham deserves more than 15 years in prison according to federal sentencing calculations but the plea agreement limits the sentence to a maximum of 10.

In November, Cunningham agreed to forfeit $1.8 million in bribes, his financial interest in the Rancho Santa Fe home he and his wife have since sold, and a long list of antiques and other furnishings.

And, because he didn't report the bribes as income, he also owes the IRS $1.57 million in back taxes, penalties and interest, prosecutors said. Cunningham disputes that amount.

In his plea, Cunningham agreed to cooperate with the investigation.


Cunningham received $10,000 to purchase this used Rolls Royce. He also demanded, and got, thousands moredollars to have it restored.

Prosecutors acknowledge he has provided some assistance - the exact details are filed in secret with the judge - but that doesn't substantially change the sentence they recommend.

"Cunningham's malversation is unprecedented in the long history of Congress," they wrote. "It is a numbing betrayal, on an epic scale, correctly termed 'outrageous' by the President of the United States.

"But not only did Cunningham betray the public trust; he also tampered with witnesses to interfere with the administration of justice. Thus, Cunningham's conduct not only corroded confidence in our system of governance; it attacked our very system of justice."

Cunningham rose to Congress on his reputation as a war hero. A Navy fighter ace during the Vietnam War and later a "Top Gun" flight instructor, he was elected in 1990. In 1998, he was named to the House Appropriations Committee, where he served on the defense subcommittee.

He also sat on the House Intelligence Committee and was chairman of a subcommittee overseeing human intelligence analysis and counterintelligence.

His assignments put him in a position to influence "a wide variety of government contracts," prosecutors noted.

Cunningham used that influence to demand bribes from government contractors, said prosecutors, who divided the bribes into several categories:

The routine: such as meals, hotels and travel.

The peculiar: Buck knives and a laser shooting simulator.

The audacious: moving expenses and money to pay capital gains taxes.

The self-indulgent: luxury cars, yachts, homes, Persian rugs and an antique chest of drawers known as a Louis-Phillipe commode.

The truly astonishing: $1 million in bribes in checks and wire transfers.

Two contractors paid the bribes, according to court documents and lawyers: Wade, founder of MZM Inc.; and Brent Wilkes of Poway, head of ADCS Inc. Both of their companies specialized in the kind of business Cunningham oversaw.

Although not named in court documents, the two men are identified by their actions as the contractors who bribed Cunningham. Those identifications have been confirmed by their lawyers.

Wade was the one who was shown the so-called bribe menu, indicating how much it would take to get a certain level of Pentagon business, according to the filing.

His company received $163 million in federal contracts from 2002 to 2005. It had not done substantial business with the government before.

Wilkes agreed to pay off a $525,000 mortgage on Cunningham's Rancho Santa Fe home in exchange for $6 million in government funds, according to the papers.

In their 67-page filing, Cunningham's lawyers said his long service to the country, military career and charitable work should count for something.

They don't dispute that prison is warranted but disagree with the 10-year recommendation by prosecutors and a probation officer.

"The central question for this court is how much is enough?" they write, noting that a doctor has given Cunningham a life expectancy of seven years.

Calling a 10-year term a "death sentence," they say that six years is more fair.

"His own misconduct has already left him penniless, homeless, estranged from those he loves and disgraced in the eyes of his countrymen," they write.

They also say that while Cunningham used his influence to help those who bribed him, "he believes in the value of those programs to this day."

And, they said, Cunningham befriended the contractors who bribed him.

"Over time, he permitted those personal relationships to cloud his moral judgment," they said.

In addition to those from friends and family members, his lawyers cite letters from a number of supporters, including Father Joe Carroll, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and folk singer Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, who worked with Cunningham on a children's education program.

In a letter to the judge, Cunningham said he is ashamed.

"I convinced myself that I wasn't selling my good offices because I believed in the programs that I supported," he wrote. "But denying reality does not change what I have done. And the reality is I received money in exchange for giving my friends special attention in Congress."

He said he has lost the trust of his wife and his children.

"I confess that it has been difficult for me to come to terms with what I have done," he wrote. "It has been hard to endure the daily public ridicule, the angry words of former friends and colleagues, and worst of all, the disappointment in the face of my 91-year-old mother."

Staff writer Dani Dodge contributed to this report.

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