`Breakdowns' found in Cunningham case

Controls failed, let legislator aid cronies, probe finds

August 10, 2006|By GREG MILLER | GREG MILLER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- An internal congressional investigation has found that "major breakdowns" in legislative controls enabled former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham to use his position on the House Intelligence Committee to steer classified government contracts to political cronies, according to a memo distributed this week to Democrats on the panel.

The memo accuses Republicans of backing out of an agreement to subpoena Cunningham and calls for the public release of a 20-page, unclassified report documenting the findings of the investigation. The memo was written by Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and circulated to Democrats on Tuesday.

Harman's description suggests that the seven-month investigation by the House intelligence panel could significantly broaden the scope of the scandal surrounding Cunningham, who pleaded guilty last year to bribery and tax evasion and is serving an eight-year prison sentence.

The criminal investigation of Cunningham, who represented a California district, focused largely on the military contracts he influenced as a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

But the internal House investigation has found a similar pattern of abuses in contracts involving U.S. intelligence agencies and includes language describing cases in which the disgraced congressman badgered committee aides and pressured them to set aside secret funds for his associates, according to congressional sources familiar with the investigation.

The committee's report, which has not been released publicly, "provides important details about how the committee's processes were abused to accomplish Cunningham's illicit aims," Harman wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The panel's report also "highlights some major breakdowns in the ability of our committee to prevent the damage even after numerous `red flags' were raised."

Harman did not elaborate on the nature of those "red flags," and a spokesman said she was not available to comment, citing an agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the committee to refrain from public discussion of the report before its release.

Senior congressional aides familiar with the report said the language refers in part to instances in which Cunningham's funding requests or instructions raised concerns among members of the Intelligence Committee staff.

"He wanted certain outcomes and for the committee to do certain things," said a congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation. "That obviously raised red flags with staff."

Despite those concerns, the aide said, Cunningham's requests often were granted. For that reason, the aide said, portions of the report could be embarrassing to the committee staff and leadership.

Congressional aides from both parties said the Intelligence Committee has implemented reforms designed to guard against similar abuses.

In particular, aides said, committee procedures now require lawmakers to get written approval from the top Republican or Democrat on the panel before they are allowed to submit requests that specific programs or contracts receive funding in spending bills. Requests also are required to be reviewed by budget directors on the Republican and Democratic committee staffs.

Cunningham abused the congressional process known as "earmarking," in which members insert language in large spending bills that steer funds to specific projects, often in their home districts.

Once the funding was approved, Cunningham pressured budget officers at the Pentagon and other agencies to award contracts to companies led by people who gave the lawmaker millions of dollars in cash and gifts. Among those who are under investigation by federal authorities is San Diego businessman Brent Wilkes.

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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