Congressman pleads guilty to bribes, resigns

8-term Calif. Republican admits taking $2.4 million from contractors


SAN DIEGO -- A tearful and trembling Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, resigned yesterday after pleading guilty to receiving $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes.

Bribery charges involving a sitting member of Congress are relatively rare. The money involved makes Cunningham's the largest such case since several members of Congress were convicted of bribery in the early 1980s.

The downfall of Cunningham, an eight-term congressman and decorated Navy fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, began with revelations about the sale of his house in Del Mar Heights to a defense contractor at an inflated price two years ago.

But in a plea agreement, Cunningham admitted a pattern of bribery going back to 2000, with contractors supplying him with Persian carpets, silver candelabras, a Rolls Royce, antique furniture, travel and hotel expenses, use of a yacht and a lavish graduation party for his daughter.

In return, Cunningham used his high-level position in Congress - he served on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Intelligence Committee - to "influence the appropriations of funds and the execution of government contracts."

"I broke the law, concealed my conduct, and disgraced my high office," Cunningham, 63, said outside the federal courthouse. "I know I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation [and] my high office." He left without answering questions.

Cunningham, who represented an affluent suburban district, could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and a $350,000 fine when he returns Feb. 27 to the court of U.S. District Court Judge Larry A. Burns.

He has also agreed to forfeit his current home in Rancho Santa Fe, which he purchased in part with illicit funds, more than $1.8 million in cash, and a dozen pricey antiques, pieces of furniture and Persian-style rugs.

Republicans are trying to maintain their grip on the House and Senate in next year's elections, and Democratic strategists are convinced that GOP ethics woes are a powerful political weapon.

In addition to Cunningham's case, those ethics charges include the indictment of then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, and the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

According to documents filed in federal court, Cunningham began receiving bribes in 2000 as his seniority gave him political power to influence the awarding of defense contracts.

The agreement refers to four co-conspirators who lavished money and gifts on Cunningham.

Although the indictment does not name the co-conspirators, the San Diego Union-Tribune revealed in June that Cunningham had sold his home in Del Mar Heights for $1,675,000 in November 2003 to Mitchell Wade, founder of Washington-based MZM Inc., a defense firm specializing in classified defense projects. An effort was made by the contractor to hide his identity as the buyer.

Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, a local school official, then bought an 8,000-square-foot home in nearby Rancho Santa Fe for $2.5 million.

Seven months later, without having lived in it, Wade sold the home in Del Mar Heights for $975,000 - a $700,000 loss. Federal grand juries in Washington and San Diego are investigating Wade, who has resigned from MZM.

In late August, federal prosecutors took the unusual step of filing a civil lawsuit attempting to seize the Cunninghams' home in Rancho Santa Fe.

MZM has received more than $163 million in federal contracts over the past decade - mostly for the gathering and analysis of intelligence. Wade allowed Cunningham to live aboard his 42-foot yacht, called the Duke Stir, while in Washington and lavished other gifts on him, the indictment alleges.

Cunningham also allegedly received favors from Brent Wilkes, an associate of Wade's who headed a defense contracting company called ADCS Inc.

Federal prosecutors said the investigation is continuing, with more indictments possible. Under his agreement, Cunningham promised to help in that investigation.

Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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