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Marcus Stern and his colleagues Jerry Kammer, Dean Calbreath, and George E. Condon Jr. are the authors of the newly released book, The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught. The four were part of the Copley News Service and San Diego Union-Tribune team that won a Pulitzer Prize last year for exposing the bribes that defense contractors Brent Wilkes and Mitch Wade paid to Cunningham, who is now serving eight years and four months at a federal prison in Tucson, Arizona. Stern has worked in Copley’s Washington Bureau for 23 years. His foreign assignments have included Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, and Turkey. I recently asked him six questions about the Cunningham affair.
1. What’s the origin of the famous bribe menu that Cunningham drew up, and which in the end led to his downfall?
Mitch Wade was treating Cunningham to a nice lunch at the Daily Grill in Georgetown. As they were talking about the future, Cunningham pulled out a piece of his own congressional stationery. He made a line of numbers down the left hand side of the stationery in which he wrote out the million of dollars in contracts that he could provide to Wade, up to $25 million. He put corresponding numbers down the right hand side, in the tens of thousands of dollars, which was what he expected to get in the form of kickbacks or bribes–or what he would call gifts–from Wade. In exchange for the first $16 million in contracts he delivered to Wade, Cunningham was given possession of a yacht called the Buoy Toy, which he eventually renamed the Duke-Stir. Wade had purchased it for Cunningham with a cashier’s check for $140,000. According to the bribe menu, Cunningham would get another $50,000 for every additional $1 million he got Wade in contracts. But after getting to $20 million, there was discounted rate by which he would get $25,000 per million in contracts. That’s why Cunningham was so intense about winning contracts through federal earmarks–he’d bully his own staff and staffers on the Appropriations Committee to make sure he got the earmarks he wanted. He also bullied and threatened sometimes balky defense officials to make sure they paid Wilkes and Wade.
2. How nasty did he get?
In one case, an appropriations staffer sent an email to one of Cunningham’s aides to notify him that earmarks had been cut across the board, including for Wade. The aide emailed back to say he was hiding under his desk because he was afraid of Cunningham’s reaction. The aide soon wrote again to say Cunningham was furious and was demanding that the money for Wade be restored. As a result, Wade got a $6.3 million earmark for a storage device for an agency called the Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, which hadn’t asked for the device–and it’s not clear that it ever used it. Wade billed the government the full $6.3 million for the device, though he subcontracted the project to Wilkes, who bought it off the shelf for $700,000 and had it delivered to CIFA.
3. And yet Cunningham claimed he was a patriot, right?
After his arrest, Cunningham argued that no matter what sort of gifts he received, everything he did was good for national security and the country. What he was really doing was plundering the defense budget year after year. Meanwhile, this was a guy who ranted on the House floor and attacked people who wanted to cut the defense budget. When former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder stood up to challenge him he called her a socialist and told her to sit down.
4. Did Cunningham arrive in Washington corrupt or was he corrupted by Washington?
This was a fundamental inquiry of our book. You have a man who achieved hero status during the Vietnam War and yet later in his life he’s exposed as being completely besotted with greed. We looked at his childhood in the 1940s–he was an average kid, maybe with a penchant for bullying, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then in 1972 he shot down three MIGs over Vietnam in seven minutes and was shot down himself. He returned home to the U.S. a war hero, to parades and honors and awards. Almost immediately you begin to see a mixture of greed and entitlement on his part. He was quickly nominated for the Navy Cross, the highest medal the Navy awards, but he and his radioman went to their commander, Ron McKeown, and said they wanted to hold out for the Medal of Honor. McKeown was stunned, he told them you don’t hold out for the Medal of Honor, you die for it. McKeown told us that Cunningham wanted the Medal of Honor because it came with a lifetime stipend, which we calculated would have been about $100 per month. Under great pressure he accepted the Navy Cross but according to his wife he always felt cheated by that. For us, that foreshadowed a dark and greedy side of Cunningham that made him a scandal waiting to happen when Republican House leaders put him on the Appropriations Committee.
5. Has Cunningham expressed remorse for his crimes?
Cunningham feels railroaded and widely blames his predicament on Mitch Wade, his co-conspirator, and on the media. At his sentencing on March 3, 2006, he told the court that repentance will be a lifelong endeavor, that “no man has ever been more sorry,” and that he “accepted responsibility” for his crimes. But after he was sentenced and taken away to a jail in San Diego, he told the deputy federal marshal who put him in his cell, a guy named Dave Dallaire, that it was all a misunderstanding and that he had been “ramrodded.” His wife, Nancy Cunningham, said in an interview with Kitty Kelley last year that he claimed he was innocent, had been railroaded by the government, that he had signed the plea agreement under duress, and that he even thinks he will pardoned by President Bush. He lied up until the moment that he pleaded guilty and engaged in cover-up practices, clumsy as they were. There’s no reason to think the tears he shed in court were genuine. I received a letter from him last September that was filled with rage at the media and at Mitch Wade.
6. Who are some of the other characters in the Cunningham story that are still facing legal problems?
Wade pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Cunningham, and to denying the country the full honest services of defense officials and to committing election fraud. He is awaiting sentencing, which is expected in the fall. It’s been delayed because he’s assisting in the prosecution of Wilkes and possibly other co-conspirators. Wilkes has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, and Dusty Foggo, the former number-three official at the CIA, has also pleaded not guilty to charges that he funneled contracts to Wilkes. They will be tried this fall in San Diego and both have indicated they will fight the charges very aggressively. Wilkes gave three-quarters of a million dollars to Republican leaders and flew Tom DeLay around on his private jet. There’s probably real uneasiness on the part of Karl Rove and other GOP strategists that if Wilkes pleaded guilty and became a government witness, that it could jeopardize some more Republican congressional seats.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”