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No accounting for a crook’s taste

IT’S NOT OFTEN you get a chance to mock a man’s ethics and his taste in interior decorating at the same time.

I sure wasn’t going to miss it.

Today the feds are slamming down the auction hammer on some of Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s ill-gotten gains, the loot that the former honorable Republican congressman from San Diego County amassed by hanging a “for sale” sign around his own dishonorable neck.

On Tuesday, I went to the auction preview to see for myself the mess of pottage Cunningham sold his political birthright for. And quite a mess it is.

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You know the story arc by now: the Vietnam “Top Gun” ace, elected to Congress, who starts treating defense contractors like Santa Claus and Capitol Hill like Santa’s workshop. He’s spending eight years in prison for tax evasion and for taking $2.4 million in bribes.

A sample Cunningham story: A couple of months after 9/11, he goes shopping with “co-conspirator No. 2" -- identified in various accounts as defense contractor Mitchell Wade -- at a swanky Beltway antique store. The Dukester wanders around the shop, picks out stuff adding up to about $12,000, then discreetly steps away while “co-conspirator No. 2" pays the tab.

My own shopping excursion took me to an icy concrete cube of a warehouse -- EG&G; Technical Services in Rancho Dominguez, where the feds were offering a preview of seized property. Ill-gotten goods from the D.C. shopping spree -- “Antiques Roadshow CSI” -- were spread out under the eye of the IRS alongside goods seized from drug dealers, Tahitian-pearl smugglers, software pirates -- criminals of the sort Cunningham used to rail against so righteously.

It was shocking on two counts: the quantity -- 40 pieces in 35 lots -- and the quality. You sell out your career, your reputation and your freedom, and this is your asking price?

Cunningham’s Gustav Stickley bed, Lot 72, and the two now-notorious 19th century French commodes, Lots 79 and 87 -- inspiration for late-night comics’ deadpan bedpan jokes -- were the only objets I’d give house room to. The rest struck me as hideously overdone: rococo, ormolu, Eastlake woodworking, more beveled mirrors than a French Quarter cathouse and more marble slabs than a New England churchyard.

A three-panel rattan screen looked as if it came from a Pier 1 parking lot sale, and some pieces were reproductions. It made me go all warm and fuzzy to think that somewhere in the greater D.C. area there may be an antiques dealer who snookered a congressman and his two-legged checkbook even as the two of them picked the public pocket.

Tino Metzger had wandered over from his construction job, and the Cunningham collection drew his eye -- specifically Lot 94, a made-in-China carpet runner 32 feet long. Thirty-two feet. That’s an entire first down, plus the quarterback’s arm.

“How big,” Metzger marveled, “was his house?”

Huge. H-u-g-e. A Rancho Santa Fe mansion of 7,628 square feet on nearly three acres, bought with some of the money that his shopping buddy Wade overpaid for Cunningham’s old house. La Casa Dukester is also in the feds’ hands now. Oddly enough, he bought it from a man who was himself indicted, for accounting fraud. Could it be ... cursed?

Cursed -- that’s exactly the allure of the auction. What would earn a better price, Florence Nightingale’s underwear or Paris Hilton’s? The Colt revolver Jack Ruby pulled on Lee Harvey Oswald sold for $200,000. Think of all the zeros the Dick Cheney “I sprayed my pal” shotgun would fetch.

Another high-flier, Linda Lay, wife of Enron’s ex, Kenneth Lay, opened her own store of shame to sell off the family goods. The Lays’ taste wasn’t much better than Cunningham’s: a bronze, life-sized Eve statue for $13,000; a red-and-brown padded bench ornamented with angels for $5,200. She also, brazenly, sold American flags for $1.25, so even the little people could say they bought something from Linda Lay.

Schadenfreude shopping! You pay for the karma, baby -- the storytelling, the speculation -- not the object.

I parked my rump on Cunningham’s Lot 71, a leather sofa that looked as if it had been made out of melted Hershey bars. What stories could it tell -- or what stories could I tell about it? Did some august government butt perch here to cut some nasty kickback deal?

I spotted one more item I wouldn’t mind having: Lot 78, a large Oriental rug in blue and red with, as the catalog described it, a “stain near center.”

A stain! A Rorschach splash! Did some tipsy senator spill his Syrah there many, many fundraisers ago? Or was it something ... else? The Democrats have only a stained blue dress ... I could have a stained blue carpet.

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PATT MORRISON’s e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com.


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