Calif. congressman gets 8 years

Cunningham sentenced to federal prison for taking millions in bribes, evading taxes

March 04, 2006|By TONY PERRY | TONY PERRY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN DIEGO -- A judge rejected Randall "Duke" Cunningham's tearful bid for mercy yesterday and sentenced the war hero and disgraced former congressman to eight years and four months in federal prison for bribery.

Looking thin and haggard, with head downcast, Cunningham listened as U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns imposed the sentence.

"You've undermined the opportunity [that] honest politicians have to do good," Burns said.

Burns ordered Cunningham to pay $1.8 million in restitution and refused his request for a week to say goodbye to his family. Cunningham was led from the courtroom by U.S. marshals.

Burns said the only reason he didn't give Cunningham 10 years was his military service during the Vietnam War.

The Rancho Santa Fe Republican confessed to taking $2.4 million in bribes and evading more than $1 million in taxes.

Defense attorneys had argued that no member of Congress convicted of corruption had ever been sentenced to more than six years in prison.

Earlier, his voice breaking, Cunningham, 64, asked Burns for clemency.

"After years of service to my country, going the right way, I made a very wrong turn," Cunningham said, slowly. "No man has ever been more sorry."

He said he would make repentance "a lifelong process" and would gladly do community service. He said he wants to repair the damage he has done to his family.

"Some say I've lost everything," he said. "But, Your Honor, you have no idea. I have three children. I asked them to stay away. I didn't want them to go through this spectacle."

He defended his Vietnam service and rejected the prosecutors' assertion that he was ego-driven. "I didn't jump into a pack of MiGs for ego," Cunningham said, looking at prosecutors. "I did it because it was the right thing to do."

Cunningham's fall was swift. He represented a Republican district in the affluent suburbs of northern San Diego County, had never encountered a close re-election race and was a key fundraiser for other Republicans.

But in June, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that defense contractor Mitchell Wade had paid what appeared to be an inflated price for Cunningham's home in Del Mar Heights.

The sale allowed Cunningham and his wife, Nancy, to buy a mansion in swank Rancho Santa Fe.

Three months before the story broke, Cunningham's chief of staff in Washington had abruptly quit to become a lobbyist.

The aide had recognized the sale price of the house as a bribe and a year earlier had advised Cunningham to resign or at least not run for re-election, a warning that Cunningham angrily ignored, according to federal prosecutors. He was re-elected in November 2004 to an eighth term.

Once the story was in the newspaper, federal prosecutors began investigating. In November, Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion.

Wade, the contractor who bought the house, pleaded guilty last month to bribery and awaits sentencing in Washington federal court. The amount Wade paid in bribes - including a price $700,000 above market value for the Del Mar Heights house - was put at more than $1 million.

Cunningham's lawyers had argued that Cunningham deserved leniency in sentencing because of his war record, ill health, lack of criminal record and contrition. He was described by doctors as suicidal, depressed and in chronic pain from injuries incurred during his Navy career.

Prosecutors countered that he had already gotten a break when they agreed, in the plea deal, to ask for no more than 10 years rather than the 20-year-plus maximum.

The plea agreement, which forced Cunningham to resign, provided a detailed list of the cash payments, sweetheart real estate deals and other luxury items that the co-conspirators provided him in exchange for his influence on key congressional committees to grant lucrative defense contracts involving technology used for intelligence gathering and analysis.

The longest term meted out to congressmen in the past four decades had been eight years: in 2002 to former Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., an Ohio Democrat, for taking payoffs, and in 1988 to former Rep. Mario Biaggi, a New York Democrat, for extorting nearly $2 million from a defense contractor.

Prosecutors said Cunningham "bullied and hectored" Pentagon bureaucrats to approve contracts for Wade and contractor Brent Wilkes, including threatening to get one bureaucrat fired and ignoring a warning from one official that $700,000 in bills from Wilkes' firm seemed fraudulent.

On congressional stationery, Cunningham kept what prosecutors called a "bribe menu," indicating how much he demanded in exchange for certain amounts of contracts.

Far from being seduced by a lobbyist or corrupted by his own need for campaign contributions, Cunningham was portrayed as the mastermind of the bribery scheme, demanding payments and tributes in exchange for his inside influence.

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