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Bribery’s Scope a Surprise

Times Staff Writer

Political friends and foes alike had a similar reaction Tuesday to Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s abrupt resignation and guilty plea to bribery and tax evasion: shock, but not surprise.

The inflated price paid by a military contractor for Cunningham’s Del Mar Heights house had long led to an assumption, even among die-hard Republicans, that the eight-term member of Congress was in serious trouble. The fact that Cunningham had lived rent-free aboard the same contractor’s yacht while in Washington was also well known.

But the scale of Cunningham’s admitted crimes -- $2.4 million in bribes and more than $1 million in evaded taxes -- caught nearly everyone off guard. The dollar figures make Cunningham’s the biggest bribery case involving a federal official in more than two decades.

Constituents and others marveled at the list of luxury items that the four unnamed co-conspirators lavished on Cunningham since 2000 in exchange for his support in landing lucrative government contracts -- things at odds with Cunningham’s preferred image as an American hero and a man of simple tastes. They include:

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* A Rolls-Royce and $17,889.96 for its repairs

* A cut-rate deal on a GMC Suburban

* A $1,500 gift certificate for a set of earrings

* Use of a corporate jet, valued at $8,166

* Resort vacations worth $10,000

* Silver candelabra, antique armoires, Persian carpets and custom oak and leaded-glass doors worth more than $50,000

* A leather sofa and a sleigh-style bed for $6,632

* Two Laser Shot shooting simulators worth $9,200

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* A 19th-century French commode, valued at $7,200

* A graduation party at a Washington, D.C., hotel for his daughter worth $2,081.30

Although the sale of the congressman’s Del Mar Heights home to military contractor Mitchell Wade was hidden through a corporate screen, details about the gifts and cash payments were easily found in bank records and documents seized at Cunningham’s Rancho Santa Fe home.

“It was entirely predictable [that Cunningham would be charged] after the house deal became public,” said San Diego lawyer Stanley Zubel, leader of Californians for a Cleaner Congress. “But nobody had a clue that the bribery was as big as it was, and as systematic over years. It evokes outrage.”

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John Dadian, GOP political consultant and a former Marine, found Cunningham’s fall particularly difficult to fathom given his heroics as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.

“It is unbelievable that a man who showed so much courage in time of war could lose his moral compass so badly when he went into politics,” Dadian said. “Even those of us who have been around politics for ages are stunned at the brazenness of this.”

President Bush expressed shock at Cunningham’s fall from political grace. Cunningham has been one of Bush’s staunchest supporters on the war in Iraq.

“The idea of a congressman taking money is outrageous,” said Bush, who was traveling in Texas, “and Congressman Cunningham is going to realize that he has broken the law and is going to pay a serious price, which he should.”

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Republican leaders are concerned about the effect of Cunningham’s guilty plea on the party’s national reputation, coming amid other scandals. But it could also have political consequences locally.

In the last two years, three San Diego City Council members have been charged with taking illegal campaign contributions. Six pension board members are charged in state court with conflict of interest for voting themselves pension increases. And a federal grand jury is probing the city’s $2-billion pension deficit.

“Like everyone, I’m saddened, shocked and disappointed that someone who served so well for so long could have misled us all in the past five years,” said Marc Wolfsheimer, president of an asset management firm. “I think it will further fuel the belief in San Diego that all politicians are corrupt, because we’ve had an overdose of this recently.”

Cunningham, 63, could face 10 years in prison and a $350,000 fine when he is sentenced Feb. 27. His plea agreement with federal prosecutors includes no promise of leniency, even though he has promised to help in the investigation of the four alleged co-conspirators, including Wade, founder of MZM Inc., a firm specializing in intelligence projects.

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In late 2003, Wade bought Cunningham’s home in Del Mar Heights for $1.675 million. Cunningham and his wife then bought an 8,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home in Rancho Santa Fe for $2.5 million.

Without ever living in the Del Mar Heights home, Wade sold it seven months later for $975,000, taking a $700,000 loss.

When the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the Del Mar Heights house sale in June, it sparked a federal investigation that led to Cunningham’s resignation and guilty plea.

At first, Cunningham had denied that he and Wade were friends. Within a week of the newspaper report, however, he said that he and Wade were friends who shared a background -- Wade was a U.S. Navy reservist who had worked in the Pentagon -- and similar concerns about national security.

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He conceded that he had shown poor judgment in selling his house to a “friend who does business with the government.” But he denied doing any improper favors for Wade or his firm in exchange for the house deal or for being allowed by Wade to live aboard the contractor’s 42-foot yacht, which Wade renamed Duke-Stir, at a Potomac yacht club.

Cunningham’s assertions of innocence were contradicted by his guilty plea Monday to having solicited bribes in exchange for helping firms seek lucrative military contracts. He has agreed to forfeit the Rancho Santa Fe house and $1.8 million found by investigators during a search of the property.

Cunningham bought the Rancho Santa Fe home from Douglas Powanda, one of eight former executives of a business software company who were later indicted for securities fraud.

At the time of the purchase, the house had been vacant for several months. Powanda is awaiting trial, and court documents do not indicate he had financial or political links to Cunningham.

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In his tearful statement outside the federal courthouse Monday, Cunningham said he realized that he had lost his freedom, reputation and the trust of his friends and family.

But Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), a longtime friend, said Tuesday that Cunningham should be remembered for his service in Vietnam.

“Duke committed crimes, and now he will pay for them,” Hunter said. “His future on earth is now in the hands of the justice system, but Duke’s soul is in the hands of God and the forgiveness of Christ.”


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